A statement on behalf of the Duke Climate Coalition regarding the September 29th Climate Commitment announcement

On the global stage, Duke is known for its public commitments to sustainability and the advancement of climate science and conservation. Much of the research that Duke does is, in fact, at the forefront of discovery in this field. The recent Climate Commitment announcement, however, demonstrates that we are still falling short of Gold Standard university climate action. During the kickoff event, members of the Duke administration emphasized their commitment to focus more on energy transformation, climate and community resilience, environmental justice, and data-driven climate solutions. To be clear, this expansion of Duke’s climate action plan is a great step forward, and we are grateful to the people who have spent so much energy on making Duke a leader in the environmental field. Still, the ceremony notably failed to mention the Board of Trustees’ refusal to divest the Duke endowment from fossil fuel companies, thus implying that the university will maintain its position as a financial supporter of the fossil fuel industry. While this announcement is no surprise considering the Duke administration’s history of failing to fully commit to combatting the climate crisis, the Duke Climate Coalition and the Divest Duke team are nonetheless disappointed. We know that the university can do better.

From an ethical standpoint, continued investment in fossil fuels is immoral, and contrasts starkly with the mission laid out in the Climate Commitment announcement. For instance, Duke’s goal to be carbon neutral by 2024 appears hollow when our money is simultaneously supporting industries that lack climate commitments in adherence to the Paris Climate Agreement. The fossil fuel companies that Duke is supporting are also unmistakably contributing to the trend of scientific disinformation that we are claiming to combat. Key players in the fossil fuel industry have been repeatedly exposed for not only driving the excessive output of greenhouse gasses that are warming our planet and contributing to climate disaster, but also for deliberately spreading distrust about the realities of climate change. For all of the emphasis that the Climate Commitment is placing on research and education in the environmental field, it seems highly contradictory to be financially supporting an industry that has blatantly dishonored scientists and activists for decades. 

 While DCC strongly supports the prioritization of climate literacy among the student body (as laid out in the Climate Commitment announcement), we remain concerned that awareness of the climate crisis will remain just that: awareness. As an institution that has the power to create real change in the world, Duke must lead by example. It's all well and good to teach students about the horrors of fossil fuels, but how can Duke denounce such practices in the classroom while supporting them in the boardroom? In doing so, any environmental awareness fostered among the student body will quickly dissipate when students realize that their leaders care about financial interests above all else. So, until Duke pledges to total divestment, the Climate Commitment will remain a statement of utter hypocrisy; as students, we want something stronger that protects our futures.

Additionally, fossil fuel investments are financially unreliable and, in the case of a not-for-profit university like Duke, legally questionable. To resist divestment is thus equivalent to ignoring the uncertain financial future of fossil fuel corporations. The world’s fossil fuel infrastructure and reserves are expected to face a long-term decline in profitability, meaning that their investments will fail to provide the steady and reliable rise in value that Duke not only wants, but is legally obligated to provide under North Carolina law (to read more about this, see the Duke Climate Coalition’s legal complaint released in April, 2022 against Duke.)

As Duke students, we want to be proud of the place we graduate from. The Climate Commitment is a good start to becoming a leader among contemporary institutions in the environmental space, but the University as a whole needs to do more for its students and the world at large. We cannot continue to lag behind other institutions like Oxford, Brown, and Cambridge who have all fully divested from fossil fuels. US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry said at the Climate Commitment event that the world needs to bring “private capital to the table” in order to successfully combat climate change. Duke’s vast pool of fossil fuel investments directly contradicts these new commitments to catalyze the development of sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. We at the Duke Climate Coalition will thus continue to advocate for full divestment from fossil fuels, and reinvestment into environmentally sustainable and socially just industries. We are proud to go to a school that appears to care so much about the future of our planet, but when it comes to the Climate Commitment, we urge you to hold your applause.


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