A Half-Step in the Right Direction

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Last week, Yale’s Committee on Fossil Fuel Investment Principles released its recommendations. In this document, members of the Yale administration finally acknowledge that climate change is a grave social harm, and that fossil fuel companies—the companies that extract fossil fuels from the earth, market them to consumers, and shape public policy behind the scenes to put their shareholders’s wealth above the good of the planet—are uniquely culpable in the climate crisis. We are glad the CFFIP acknowledges and affirms the long-standing and overwhelming student consensus that continuing to invest in and profit from the reckless, destructive practices of these companies is morally wrong. 

The Endowment Justice Coalition (EJC) sees this report as a major victory. It’s a sign that direct action works. There would be no committee at all without years of sustained and ongoing advocacy and direct action from students, faculty, and New Haven community members. In fact, the formation of the CFFIP was announced on the first day of the EJC’s multi-day occupation of cross campus last October. Of course, President Salovey and the administration have not and will not acknowledge our impact for fear of admitting that student activism works. This must be considered a critical part of the years-long narrative of community organizing around fossil fuel divestment in order to counteract the tendency of the administration to downplay student power and discourage student movement-building.

We want to make it clear that our work is not over. We have no intention of backing down. We will not let these recommendations undermine or end student activism while Yale pats itself on the back and initiates an opaque, years-long bureaucratic process that goes nowhere. We will not let the administration rest until they divest from every corporate entity perpetrating harm to frontline communities through degradation of the environment, dissemination of nuclear weaponry, and investments in the prison-industrial complex. Divestment also means more than just disaffiliating with specific companies; it involves taking a public moral stand, leveraging Yale’s social capital as an influential institution to send the signal to other investors that profiting from exploitation, violence, and environmental degradation is unacceptable. Even when fully implemented, the policies recommended by the CFFIP will be just the first step—perhaps the first half-step—in the right direction. 

While the committee acknowledges the “special responsibility” of fossil fuel producers, and that “some actors in the fossil fuel industry have acted egregiously in the past,” the committee refuses to recommend divestment from all fossil fuel producers. They give several reasons for this refusal, none of which are grounded in an evidence-based understanding of environmental science or the political and economic incentives of fossil fuel companies to continue fueling climate denialism and destruction. 

First, the committee allows for the possibility that shareholder engagement—the process of leveraging Yale’s financial stake in fossil fuel companies to push for more environmentally sound practices—could in some instances be a more effective strategy for reducing the social injury perpetrated by these companies than divestment. In response, the EJC asks: is there any example the Yale Corporation can name, in the long history of Yale’s investment in unethical companies, in which Yale effectively employed the strategy of shareholder engagement to compel a company to change its practices? Has Yale, or, for that matter any other institutional investor, ever affected positive change this way? This has never happened. If it had, Yale would already be bragging about it. Furthermore, shareholder activism is impossible when the entire business model of these companies is predicated on extracting and burning fossil fuels. As The Ethical Investor, the document Yale claims guides their investments, states, “if the harm caused is grave and if there is nothing the university as a shareholder – or anyone else – can do about it in any reasonably near future, then the university should disaffiliate.” We recognize shareholder engagement as the delay tactic it is. 

Second, while the recommendations do not contain the word “fracking,” we recognize that much of their language holds the door wide open for the University to continue to invest in fracked gas, furthering the myth that it is the “good” fossil fuel. We will not let these recommendations serve as an excuse for Yale to invest in more insidious types of environmental destruction. While natural gas results in lower CO2 emissions than coal or oil, it still contributes to global warming and presents a whole host of other environmental and health consequences, especially for frontline communities.

Finally, the committee has not responded to the other ways the Investments Office profits from the climate crisis, namely through investments in distressed Puerto Rican debt. Yale must divest from companies that exploit communities on the front lines of both the climate crisis and imperialism. In the case of Puerto Rican debt and every other case in which Yale has immorally profited from the precarity and vulnerability of frontline communities, Yale must redress the harm caused by that theft. 

Although the CFFIP’s recommendations represent a major shift in how some members of the administration talk about fossil fuels, no money has yet been moved and our work is just beginning. We will continue to fight for Yale to disclose, divest, and reinvest. DISCLOSE their current investments, and make the University’s investment practices transparent and responsive to community feedback from the Yale, New Haven, and Global South communities; DIVEST from each and every company whose business model is destructive, extractive, exploitative, imperialist, carceral, and militaristic; and REINVEST the obscene wealth they have hoarded in the city of New Haven and in marginalized communities around the world who are on the front lines of the struggle against climate change and imperialism. 

In solidarity forever, 

The Endowment Justice Coalition

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