Last Friday, University President Mark Schlissel wrote a letter from the Office of the President titled “Addressing Climate Change as a Powerful Community.” We thank Schlissel for taking an important step to open a public dialogue around divestment. This is the first public response during our four-year campaign explaining why our university is not joining the nearly 500 other institutions worldwide that have committed to divesting from fossil fuel industries.
Schlissel’s arguments are unsound. Regarding the two previous instances of divestment in University history — the tobacco industry and apartheid — he stated, “In the previous two instances where we eventually divested, the investments … were inextricably linked to immoral and unethical actions and ideologies” and that fossil fuels are different because they "…enable us to operate the university, to conduct research and to provide patient care.” He is correct regarding our reliance on fossil fuels, but he fails to address the issue of whether the fossil fuel industry is morally suspect. Fossil fuel combustion is causing climate change that will have adverse, disproportionate and irreversible effects on billions of people — mostly on women, people of color and others who have contributed little to the problem.
Despite having known about these threats for decades, fossil fuel companies have contributed to climate denialism by funding lobbying groups that, for instance, spread disinformation about climate science. Disinformation campaigns are antithetical to the values of institutions like the University, and these companies must be held accountable for their unethical and immoral practices (see the New York attorney general’s recent investigation into Exxon Mobil).
As to the inevitableness of relying on fossil fuels, recall that the past few years have bolstered the competitiveness of renewables; the actions of various financial decision makers are foreshadowing a major energy transition. For example, Allianz, the world’s largest insurance company, divested from coal last month. The fact that we all are still reliant on fossil fuels underlines the urgency of shifting our energy vision and infrastructure. Divestment catalyzes this shift.
The University currently lacks autonomy over energy infrastructure, but we do have autonomy over financial decisions. These decisions matter to the world beyond Ann Arbor. The main argument for divestment is that “if it’s wrong to cause climate change, it’s wrong to profit from causing climate change.” So far, nearly 500 institutions have acted on this clarion call by pledging to divest more than $3.4 trillion from fossil fuels.
This is just the beginning. The choice of divesting declares that — along with other positive initiatives that President Schlissel has championed — we are committed to building and ethically financing a more sustainable world.
President Schlissel’s second point is that divestment isn’t an effective tool for transitioning to a clean energy future. It is unlikely that actions taken by a leading public university in the country would go unnoticed. When the University acts, many in the world listen. To say that divesting would have no influence on other institutions and no impact in speeding the transition to cleaner energy ignores the University’s influence and obligation. Aligned with our country’s democratic process, divestment is a vote for a cleaner energy future — it serves as an opportunity for universities to engage in a public dialogue about a just energy transition and to stand in solidarity with those most hurt by climate change.
Lastly, President Schlissel said, “… the endowment should not be used to further other causes, however noble.” First, it is difficult to reconcile this statement with Schlissel’s acknowledgement of the precedent set by the University’s two past divestment actions. These actions paved the way for considering divestment when “…a particular issue involves serious moral or ethical questions which are of concern to many members of the University community.” Our campaign has exposed the moral implications of supporting fossil fuel industries. Resolutions passed by the Central Student Government and the Senate Assembly in support of our position urge the Board of Regents to form a committee to examine divestment.
Clearly, this issue is “of concern to many members of the University community.” Moreover, to see any of the University’s divestment campaigns as attempts to use the endowment to further other causes misrepresents the argument that the University should divest in order to respect the moral constraints inherent in the pursuit of its mission, not in order to further other causes that are extrinsic to this mission.
President Schlissel’s article expresses his personal view on the issue of fossil fuel divestment. The University, though, has clearly defined an objective, three-pronged standard that when met, warrants the formation of an ad hoc committee to examine any divestment issue of interest to University students and faculty. We have met this standard.
Because of organized support for fossil fuel divestment on campus and the University’s unmistakable role in a globally conscious society, we request that President Schlissel and the Board of Regents hold a public meeting to continue discussions on this critical issue in an open manner. The formation of an ad hoc committee is clearly warranted.
This article is written on behalf of Divest and Invest, the University’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, by University students Nicholas Jansen, Valeriya Epshteyn and Leonard Kapiloff, as well as University faculty members Knute Nadelhoffer, George Kling and Maria Lasonen-Aarnio.