In September of 2015, Colby College quietly divested its direct holdings from fossil fuels. This is a huge step for Colby as a leader in the fight against climate change, and we want to thank the college for this decision to make their direct holdings fossil free, but there’s a slight problem. You would have thought that a prestigious institution like Colby College, with a strong and longstanding commitment to social and environmental responsibility
would have publicly announced this financial decision, that Colby’s financial managers suggested, as a crucial step towards making its investment portfolio better align with its proclaimed values of campus sustainability and resource conservation. This is not the case. If you are reading this, you are one of the first people to know about this divestment.
Divestment, defined as taking money out of funds or stocks, is not a new idea. A handful of successful divestment campaigns in recent history include those targeting the South African apartheid system of government, ethnic violence in Darfur, and the tobacco industry. The ultimate goal of divestment is not to financially cripple industries deemed harmful, it is to put your money where your mouth is, to make your investments reflect your individual or institutional values, to incentivize pro-social justice, are pro-environmental behavior in the market.
Over the last few years, institutions around the world have divested their endowments from fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) as a way to acknowledge the threat of climate change. With roots in college campuses, the movement has also reached foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, religious institutions, and even cities in the US and across the world including San Francisco, California and Oslo, Norway.
Fossil Free Indexes created “The Carbon Underground 200”, a selection of the top 200 fossil fuel companies in terms of their potential to pollute. To date, approximately $3.4 trillion has been divested by over 505 institutions. 350.org urges institutions to divest in order to “help break the hold that the fossil fuel industry has on our economy and our governments.”
As a self-proclaimed leader in environmental practices and thinking, Colby College is a pioneer in the movement for a greener future on college campuses. In 2013, Colby was the fourth institution of higher learning to become carbon neutral. At the time, former Colby President William D. Adams declared “This milestone is part of a much larger, and very significant, commitment by the College to sustainability and environmental education—areas in which Colby has been a leader for decades.” The College proudly boasts numerous sustainability measures including composting food waste, an extensive recycling program, a biomass plant, twelve LEED rated buildings, a planned 1.9 MW solar field, and an environmental studies program that is “one of the oldest and best in the country.”
Colby prides itself on its successful and attractive environmental measures, raising questions of financial integrity. Can a college really be “carbon neutral” if it is making money off of companies that cause incredible damage to the planet through fossil fuels?
As of June 30, 2014, there was only one company left in Colby’s direct holdings that was listed under 350.org’s “The Carbon Underground 200.” This company, Southwestern Energy, was responsible for only 1/1000th of the value of the college’s endowment. Despite student efforts to push the College to divest from this company, Colby kept its investment.
During the fall 2015 semester, Colby quietly withdrew its remaining direct holding in the “CU200” company, Southwestern Energy. This was done without fanfare or a press release, and the administration has yet to publicly announce this divestment. The Colby Alliance for Renewable Energy has asked the college to commit to no future investments in the fossil fuel industry but so far the college has refused to make that commitment.
Colby administrators have acknowledged that they don’t believe in using the endowment for political purposes. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and Colby College’s 2015-2016 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Studies, scoffs at this reasoning. “If it’s political to divest,” he said, “it’s clearly just as political to invest.”
Ultimately, climate change reaches far beyond campus politics, or even national politics. It is scientific fact. Anthropogenic sources of carbon emissions are changing our climate rapidly, and it is a reality humans are facing, regardless of who we are, where we live, or what our personal beliefs are. Just this past weekend the Colby Student Government Association unanimously voted in support of the college divesting its direct holdings from the Carbon Underground 200 and committing to withholding all future investments in these companies.
McKibben writes, “Climate change is the most urgent crisis of our time, and perhaps all time. Colby’s reputation will help make it clear that responsible parties in our society need to break ties with the fossil fuel industry.” We are grateful that Colby College continues to be a national leader on environmental issues and has started to take steps towards divestment. We hope Colby will put its money where its mouth is by committing to not reinvesting in fossil fuels and staying true to its leadership in campus sustainability and resource conservation.