Dec. 28, 2014

College invests in energy stocks, alumna suggests divestment

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January 31, 2013

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The earth has a fever.  According to the International Energy Agency, the planet humans call home is on a trajectory to warm by six degrees Celsius, or 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit, by the year 2100.

“If you think about it as the temperature of the planet, when a person has a temperature that goes up six degrees, they’re brain dead,” environmental activist Cher Gilmore ’65 said.

To combat Earth’s current path of aggressive warming, colleges across the United States are running campaigns asking their administrations to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  Divestment involves stopping investments “that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds,” according to http://350.org, a national organization working to reduce hydrocarbon emissions to safer levels.  Colleges and universities use profits from investments — including those made from energy companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell and Peabody Coal to grow their endowments.

This semester, the College of William and Mary’s Student Environmental Action Coalition will join this national movement as part of their Energy Justice Campaign to encourage the College’s Board of Visitors to divest from fossil fuel industries, primarily those involved in extraction.

“We are trying to start conversations with the administration to try to get a sense of where the College’s money is right now, where economic power lies on that front, and to just get a conversation started between students and the administration,” SEAC member Jackie Carroll ’13 said.

Divestment as a strategy was most successful during Apartheid, when 155 colleges and universities divested from South Africa.  South African social rights activist Desmond Tutu credited divestment with helping to end South Africa’s segregation laws.

While fossil fuels present an environmental problem, some see the issue through a moral lens as well.

“We’re destroying the world for everyone, but the people who are going to be most affected are the people who can least protect themselves against it,” Gilmore said. “Bangladesh, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, is at sea level.  Their whole country is going to be underwater.”

Critics point out that pulling investments from oil giants like ExxonMobil is unlikely to have a significant economic effect.  SEAC argues divestment is more about political capital.

“On another level, and a lot of schools say this is more important to them, it’s a political choice, so it’s about showing solidarity to other businesses and other people divesting from these industries,” Carroll said.  “It’s not so much about the actual economic impact of having universities divest — it’s a little more symbolic than that.”

The administration is skeptical that divestment is a feasible option at this time.  Domestic stocks make up 18.4 percent of the College’s investment portfolio, which includes the S&P 500 Index, a group of stocks of which 12 percent are in energy.  Energy stocks make up 10 percent of the MSCI World Index and 12.5 percent of the MSCI Emerging Market Index, both of which are included in the College’s portfolio.

According to Vice President of Finance Sam Jones, cutting out energy stocks means a lower rate of endowment growth.

“Limiting investment options limits potential investment return, lowers the rate of growth of the endowment, and ultimately impacts our ability to invest in and support our educational programs. … Excluding such stocks as investment options would most certainly have an impact on investment return, and ultimately our programs,” Jones said in an email.

Jones cited the Committee on Sustainability and its efforts to increase efficiency as ways that the College is addressing hydrocarbon emissions closer to home.

However, according to Carroll, divesting does not necessarily mean losing money.

“It’s important to remember that divestment isn’t about removing investments — it’s about relocating investments,” Caroll said. “It’s not about making the College lose money on any front; it’s about making smarter investment decisions that are good for the College and also good for the environment.”

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