Williams divest movement disappointed at college's climate change strategy

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WILLIAMSTOWN >> While Williams College is pointing to a new strategy to invest $50 million more in renewable energy and energy-conserving technologies leading to a net-zero carbon footprint, students, faculty and alumni members of the divest movement are disappointed.

A majority of Williams College students — 71 percent — and a significant number of faculty members and alumni want the college to divest its $2.3 billion endowment from the stocks of 200 oil and gas affiliated companies. The divest movement began in 2012 and has rapidly grown since.

Divest proponents have called on the college administration and board of trustees to assume "visible leadership" in responding to the "urgent challenge of global climate change."

The college — after spending months analyzing the proposal — responded last week with what critics deemed little more than a slogan.

"We will invest, not divest," said the Sept. 10 announcement of a new college climate strategy, penned by the board of trustees and President Adam F. Falk.

Promised investments included $50 million in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects over the next five years, aimed at reaching sustainable carbon neutrality and reducing the college's net greenhouse gas emissions to 35 percent below 1990 levels by 2020.

In the announcement, Falk noted that, as a result of a long-term evolution of its investment strategy completed June 30, "Williams does not have direct holdings in any companies, including those 200, nor does it have any plans to acquire any such direct holdings."

But the college will not "abandon its overall investment strategy to comply fully with the divestment petition. Instead the college will seek to advance efforts to address climate change through a comprehensive set of initiatives and investments of as much as $50 million over the next five years."

"President Falk and the trustees have thought deeply about how we can ask more of ourselves and most effectively invest the college's human and financial resources in this complex challenge," said Michael R. Eisenson, chairman of the Williams College trustees. "This plan represents a leadership response to climate change that we believe is worthy of Williams."

But divestment proponents contend that these efforts only represent an accelerated vision of what the college was already pursuing and will serve its financial self-interest.

"This is a sad moment in the history of the college," said Steve Kaagen, a 1965 graduate. "They looked up at the fire-breathing dragon of climate change and pulled out a fly-swatter."

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"The fact that this (divestment) is difficult does not outweigh the fact that it's the right thing to do," said Brian Burke, a 2002 Williams graduate and professor of sustainable development at Appalachian State University. "We need policies that can spur rapid, large-scale responses. Leading institutions, the ones with enough resources and intelligence and moral commitment, need to lead the way. Does this help shift the national political context in favor of meaningful climate and energy policy? This plan clearly doesn't."

The college's announcement also detailed several more investments — including two new faculty positions in the areas of climate change science.

But it also roundly rejected divestment as a strategy, saying a pulling of the college's fossil fuel investments — including but not limited to $4.4 million in Carbon Underground 200 stocks — would be a "largely symbolic" act and cost Williams $76 million in the first year and more in the long run.

Falk and the board also said its holdings in fossil fuel companies were within "co-mingled funds," and to remove them would require "current holdings of the endowment be liquidated and the portfolio be reinvested in vehicles that historically have not produced returns equivalent to our current approach.

"We believe that divestment itself is a largely symbolic strategy, with little likelihood of having a substantive impact on the economic or social forces responsible for climate change, or on the political decisions that are necessary to address it," the announcement states. "Further, while this is by no means solely a financial issue, to fully adopt the actions called for by the divestment proposal would involve expected costs of a magnitude that would, if realized, compromise our ability to achieve our core mission, again for uncertain gain."

Divestment advocates were little moved by the argument that the college's investment pool would make less money — it pulled down 13.4 percent in the last five years — if what they were asking for occurred.

They also pointed to an April report by the college's own Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility suggesting that disentangling the college's commingled funds would be less arduous than some were suggesting.

But Williams students advocating divestment said that to focus on the financial impact was to miss the point.

"That the board has decided to continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry, one of the most destructive industries on the planet, is unacceptable," Alexandra Griffin, Class of 2018, said. "The ever-growing numbers of students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members who came together last year to urge the college to divest from fossil fuels will continue to fight for fossil fuel divestment and urge the college to invest its endowment in ways that will help build a more just, more sustainable future."

"This is leadership within the 'Purple Bubble,' " Daniel Shearer, a 2004 graduate, said. "We needed something international newspapers could hold up as a message to our state, national and international politicians as they make some of the hardest decisions regarding climate and justice issues they have ever faced. We're disappointed that there is no desire to innovate in (endowment) investing, pioneering a route with high returns that doesn't require financing fossil fuel extraction and climate destruction."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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