The issue of fossil fuel divestment has been heavily contested in recent years. Growing concerns about the causes and effects of climate change have inspired movements that advocate for public pushback against fossil fuel industries to spring up around the country. One such group is Fossil Free, a national organization that is active on over 300 college campuses and calls on institutions to divest their investments from fossil fuel companies.
The topic is hotly debated across the country, and on Wednesday evening Boston College got a taste of clashing sides in a debate co-sponsored by the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) and the Fulton Debate Society.
Erin Sutton and T.J. Buckley, both members of BCFF and A&S ’16, presented the case for divestment. Alexander Tingle, a member of the Fulton Debate Society and CSOM ’14, argued against divestment alongside Matt Alonsozana, UGBC executive vice president and A&S ’14.
An audience poll before the debate showed that 32 viewers supported divestment, while seven were unsure of their position, and 12 opposed divestment.
A point of contention between both sides was how the mission of BC as a Jesuit university should play into its investment strategy.
“Not only is it financially feasible and prudent for Boston College to divest from its holdings in fossil fuel companies, but … as a leading American and Jesuit university, BC has a chance and a responsibility to stand up for what’s right, to be a leader, and to really make a difference,” Buckley said in his opening statement.
Alonsozana said BC should stand up for its students and consider their interests more than any thing else.
By BC taking the lead on a divestment strategy, the debaters from Fossil Free acknowledged that the action would be largely symbolic, and that it would likely not have any effect on the profits of fossil free companies or their ability to operate. Only about 2 percent of the average college endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies, so if just one college were to divest, the effect on the companies would be minuscule.
Alonsozana and Tingle said that other individuals or companies would pick up the stocks dropped by divesting institutions. They added that divestment would do little to change the global supply and demand of fossil fuels.
“Divestment harms the ability of the University to educate its students by undermining its financial resources,” Alonsozana said. “[Divestment] negates opportunity not only for us but for others. The University requires funds in order to function. The endowment makes it possible for clubs to go on retreats and put on events, for departments to hire the best faculties, and for students to receive financial aid.”
Sutton and Buckley acknowledged that divestment would do nothing to touch the billion dollar profits of most fossil fuel companies, but they said that by socially stigmatizing the industry, citizens in the U.S. and elsewhere might begin to pressure their governments to enact more regulations on those companies.
They called to mind the example of divestment from the tobacco industry in 1990s and said that that contributed to changing attitudes about the industry and helped push through government regulations. During that decade, Stanford and Harvard divested their endowments completely from tobacco.
Tingle said that using endowments to make political statements goes against the fundamental purpose of an endowment-that is, to make sound investments that yield the highest possible return within a reasonable risk margin.
On its endowment website, the University’s investment guidelines give mention to BC’s Jesuit mission as a factor in its consideration of investment strategies: “Boston College is a Jesuit, Catholic institution of higher education. In the management of its investments, Boston College reflects the ethical, social, and moral principles inherent in its mission and heritage. In particular, the University is firmly committed to the promotion of the dignity of the individual, personal freedom, and social justice.”
The central argument of BCFF, a group not formally recognized by the University, was that divestment should be a strategy used to stigmatize fossil fuel companies, because those companies contribute to global climate change by releasing dangerous levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“What we aim to do is remove the [industry’s] social license,” Sutton said. “We want to weaken and stigmatize the industry, whose existence perpetuates the destruction of the planet. Divestment sends the message that it is wrong to wreck the planet, and it is absolutely criminal to profit from that wreckage.”
The University’s endowment website states that it will “periodically” review its investment to ascertain whether the firms it invests in operate in accord with BC’s ethical, social, and moral principles.
The 10-member Trustee Investment and Endowment Committee is responsible for the overall investment policy and the selection of assets.
The post-debate poll of the audience showed that 25 audience members supported divestment after hearing both sides, while five remained unsure, and 25 were opposed. The poll was informal, and the pool of audience members fluctuated slightly throughout the debate.