Climate change report shows need for fossil fuel divestment

By ELLEN BECHTEL ’14
Contributing Writer

Less than a month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its long anticipated Fifth Assessment Report (AR5). The report’s findings were not groundbreaking: humans are irreversibly altering the planet by burning fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere. As expected, the report emphasizes that time is running short for policy makers to intervene before the planet reaches an irreversible climate tipping point.

So what’s new here? Confidence. IPCC scientists are now 99 percent sure that the main driver of climate change is human activity, not natural variation. By contrast, in 2007 the IPCC reported 90 percent certainty in their conclusion—excellent odds for winning at cards, but apparently not good enough for governments and institutions to bet on climate change. If the 2001 report was a wakeup call, and newspapers called the 2007 report a “screaming siren,” then what is the AR5? A nuclear reactor meltdown?
The message of the AR5 science is simple and timely. Policymakers and administrators must take these warnings seriously. They must take immediate steps to begin reducing fossil fuel emissions while also developing rigorous and practical long-term plans. The Wellesley College administration and Board of Trustees should keep this in mind today when Fossil Free Wellesley’s divestment campaign requests an immediate freeze in the investment of college funds in fossil fuel industries, hopefully leading to a prudently executed full divestment in the very near future.

Divestment is essentially the opposite of investment, and it is a powerful and well-tested tool for creating broad social and economic change. Without requiring government action, divestment provokes change at the corporate scale by systematically removing financial and political support from companies that engage in practices that investors find objectionable or morally reprehensible.

Divestment strategies are far more than speculation or guesswork. In the 1980s, Wellesley joined many other colleges and universities and even entire cities in divesting from companies that supported the South African apartheid. Largely because of this action, global support for apartheid crumbled. In the 1990s, similar divestment campaigns dramatically reduced the power and profitability of the tobacco industry in the United States. Careful divestment from the fossil fuel industry can also work for social justice, human rights and class, race and gender equality around the globe. For those reasons alone, divestment represents ethical and sound college policy, but there’s more to it than that.

In short, divestment works, and it is doable. Today, over 300 schools across the country have active fossil fuel divestment campaigns. Five New England colleges—Hampshire, Green Mountain, College of the Atlantic, Sterling and Unity—have already committed to divesting. It is time for those responsible for preserving Wellesley’s legacy and ensuring its future to take a stance on this issue in light of our college motto, Non Ministrari Sed Ministrare, “Not to be ministered unto, but to minister.”

Taking action to combat accelerating climate change does not explicitly require divestment. This is a choice we must make. Highly conservative, consensus-driven international policy recommendations on climate change make a profound evidence-based case for immediate action at every level—including at our own institution. Human-driven climate change is real. The pace of climate change is fast and accelerating. Effective changes must come soon, or they may be too late avoid the worst effects of climate change on the planet and on human society. The time to divest was yesterday.

The Wellesley College administration and especially the Board of Trustees need to listen closely today when students from Fossil Free Wellesley ask for the College to freeze further investments in oil, gas and coal companies and commit to divestment. The long-term health of the College depends on confronting the human causes of climate change, and full divestment from the fossil fuel industry will be a sound, practical and effective first step.

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