On February 22nd, Columbia’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) released a statement recommending that the University divest its endowment from companies that primarily produce thermal coal, a subset of coal that is mined for energy production. For the past five years, students organized under the group Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (formerly, Barnard Columbia Divest) have fought for full divestment of our endowment from the top 200 coal, oil, and gas corporations. We recognize the importance of this proposal as the administration’s first public commitment to divest the endowment from any part of the fossil fuel industry. We also recognize the importance of this proposal as a partial win for what has been an emotionally charged, arduous, and powerful campaign. And yet, we cannot support this proposal because coal divestment is not an adequate institutional response to the threat of climate change.
Divesting from coal alone communicates the false, harmful message that coal is the only fossil fuel causing violence and climate destruction. Unfortunately, the oil and gas industries are also responsible for endangering the health and livelihoods of communities living at the sites of fossil fuel extraction and in the path of their transport. We cannot support this coal divestment proposal because it guarantees Columbia’s continued investment in various oil and gas corporations. For example, Columbia remains directly invested in Phillips 66, an oil and gas company that has a 25% share in the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Phillips 66 does not qualify for divestment under the ACSRI’s proposal. Even if we ignore how our University’s continued investment in fossil fuel infrastructure is a denial of the reality of climate change, this proposal directly implicates Columbia in the violence inflicted upon the indigenous people fighting at Standing Rock. Over the past year, police have employed brutal tactics against peaceful water protectors, including tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, mass arrests, and forcible removal, all to defend the interests of the fossil fuel industry.
In its proposal, the ACSRI writes that the University cannot divest from oil and gas because there are “currently no commercial substitutes” for their use in transportation, whereas thermal coal faces competition from solar, wind, and natural gas. The committee’s reasoning betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of divestment's role in facilitating social change. Divestment has always been about expanding the realm of possibility and imagining new futures, as is evident in its use against apartheid, genocide, and incarceration. Divestment is about undermining ideologies suggesting that human suffering is something we must accept, or worse yet, something that is impossible to change.
Divesting from coal, an already-dying industry, does little to shift people’s understanding of what is possible. If Columbia were to divest from oil and gas, even if there were no “commercial substitutes,” it would fundamentally change the general acceptance of fossil fuels as either necessary or moral. It would also communicate the sense of urgency which is required to match the urgent nature of climate change. By marginalizing the fossil fuel industry and its beneficiaries, who now hold power at the highest levels of our federal government, we make space for sustainable, community-led alternatives.
Thus, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice calls upon our university to make a genuine commitment to climate justice by divesting from all fossil fuel corporations, especially Phillips 66. We also call on Columbia to begin reinvesting divested capital into communities already suffering from the effects of climate change, including the residents of West Harlem that it displaces, criminalizes, and impoverishes. After all, the ACSRI’s failure to recommend a radical response to climate injustice is just one symptom of Columbia’s willingness to accept human suffering as a condition of financial growth.
It would be shameful for Columbia, as a highly influential institution, to shy away from taking bold action. As the White House actively works to undermine all efforts to curb climate change and environmental degradation, we must look to universities to lead by example. We will continue to fight until Columbia puts people’s lives ahead of its profits.