Energy & Environment

Push to divest fossil fuel companies from Vermont college endowments is gaining momentum

University of Vermont students converged in the Davis Center Friday afternoon to speak out in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Courtesy photo

University of Vermont students converged in the Davis Center Friday afternoon to speak out in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Courtesy photo

Earlier this month, tiny Sterling College became the first college in Vermont and the third college in the nation to commit to divesting its endowment of fossil fuel companies. But a hefty handful of Vermont’s colleges and universities are considering whether to follow suit, with student-led divestment campaigns rallied by Vermont resident and climate activist Bill McKibben.

Though some are embryonic, these campaigns are part of a nationwide movement at 256 colleges and universities, perhaps the largest student movement in decades. The Northeast region, Vermont included, is leading the charge.

VTDigger has confirmed divestment campaigns at the University of Vermont (UVM), Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Middlebury, St. Michael’s in Colchester, and Green Mountain College in Poultney.

Gofossilfree.org, a hub for the movement, lists two other schools, Goddard College and Johnson State College, as having a campaign, but college officials were not aware of them.

Kevin Ellis, a spokesman for Goddard, said however, “Goddard has a very strong screening and vetting process as to where their money is invested.” He added that the college takes climate change very seriously and that “Goddard welcomes this kind of inquiry. This is what Goddard is about.”

Gofossilfree.org also lists a campaign at Johnson State College. Tom Robbins, the vice president of finance at Vermont State Colleges, was unaware of a divestment campaign at Johnson State. He said that because Johnson State is part of the five-school consortium of Vermont State Colleges, its funding comes from a joint $19 million endowment; in order for Johnson State to divest, all five schools would have to.

UVM and Middlebury’s movements started last fall, while Vermont Law School and St. Michael’s and Green Mountain colleges’ are about a month old.

Students at UVM and Middlebury have asked for and received lists of their schools’ investments. Vermont Law School, St. Michael’s, and Green Mountain College students are still waiting for that information. Student groups at the first two schools have met with the board of trustees and the schools have hosted panel discussions on divestment. They’ve even run surveys and circulated petitions.

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The University of Vermont’s crusade is perhaps the largest in the state, with roughly 1,500 student signatures on a petition to the board of trustees. That’s over 10 percent of the student body, at a school with a $327 million endowment, according to U.S. News & World Reports.

A Middlebury College Student Government Association survey of roughly 1,000 students found that 60 percent of students support divestment from fossil fuel companies, or arms manufacturers, or both. Only 15 percent of the Middlebury student body opposes divestment.

Some student groups, like UVM’s Student Climate Culture, have a list of specific requests, such as divesting from a particular company. Others, like Fossil Free SMC at St. Michael’s, are simply asking their board of trustees to divest within five years.

Vermont Law School students haven’t decided yet whether they are going to ask the school to divest from all fossil fuel companies or just those companies involved in tar sands extraction, which environmentalists argue produces more greenhouse gases and is environmentally destructive.

Whatever they decide, Alex Gilbert, a student organizer, says they plan on rolling divestment into other green initiatives on campus.

Many of the schools already have green initiatives. Vermont Law School recently received a $200,000 anonymous donation for a green revolving fund to invest in projects like campus energy efficiency. The money saved is channeled back into the fund for future projects. Green Mountain College installed a biomass heating plant in 2011 that will save the college, which has 700 students and a strong focus on sustainability, 100,000 gallons of heating oil a year. Students are now saying these actions are good, but not enough.

McKibben drives the divestment movement

The national divestment movement began last July, when McKibben, the most prominent voice in the country speaking out against climate change, wrote an article for Rolling Stone magazine called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

Citing scientific reports, McKibben argued that humans can release just 565 more gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere before we will have warmed the earth 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a level above which scientists say there will be catastrophic consequences. That number already spells catastrophe for some small island nations, which will be inundated from sea level rise, McKibben warned.

Author Bill McKibben. Photo by Jennifer Esperanza, courtesy of 350.org

Author Bill McKibben. Photo by Jennifer Esperanza, courtesy of 350.org

Yet fossil fuel companies have 2,795 gigatons of carbon in reserve, said McKibben. Those reserves, worth $27 trillion, are what the companies’ stock market values are based upon. If they don’t extract those reserves, argued McKibben, the companies’ stock market value will plummet. If they do extract and burn those reserves, our planet will become a place “straight out of science fiction.”

In November, McKibben took those numbers on tour to colleges and universities in 21 cities, rallying students to urge their schools to purge their investment portfolios in fossil fuel companies. He left behind a trail of fired-up campuses. According to Gofossilfree.org, the website serving as a hub for the movement, the 256 schools include such big schools as MIT, Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Boston College, UMass, and Yale and smaller schools such as Dartmouth, Babson, Barnard, Oberlin, Bard and Bates.

Students at those schools are asking their administrators to freeze new fossil fuel investments and commit as soon as possible to divesting within five years from the 200 fossil fuel companies that own the greatest reserves of oil, gas, and coal on the planet. Those 200 companies were identified by Carbon Tracker, a non-profit initiative to prevent a carbon-based stock market crash.

A small peep, or a big change?

The student organizers have the courage of their convictions and feel action must be taken soon. Tyler McFarland, a member of Student Climate Culture, the divestment group at UVM, sees the situation as urgent.

“Part of the divestment campaign is I want to show students that they have the power to do something,” he said. “And that they need to do something because time is almost gone.”
He added, “We can look to our leaders, but that hasn’t really been working, unfortunately. It’s not going to work fast enough if we’re all sitting back.”

Teddy Smyth, a sophomore at Middlebury and member of the student group Divest for Our Future, said, “It’s morally imperative that we aren’t investing in companies whose business plans run counter to the school’s goals.”

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Smyth sees it as good news that just 3.6 percent of his school’s $908 million endowment is invested in fossil fuels. But it’s not good enough, he says. Middlebury has been a leader in environmental issues and should continue that tradition, he argued.

Smyth also said divestment could be a “smart ahead-of-the-market decision.”

“If the country ever gets serious about emissions targets,” he said, “then we aren’t going to be able to burn all of the carbon that fossil fuel companies own. If we can’t burn that carbon, the companies will drop in value and will become bad investments.”

Smyth wants his school’s administrators to heed the call. “We could be the leader of the divestment movement. We could be the first school with a sizable endowment to divest. We could be the forefront of the divestment movement today.”

Financial analysts and experts in financial investment have differing views of the movement’s potential impact. Ralph Earle, an investor in renewable energy who spoke at Middlebury last month, said that while he’s not opposed to it, he doesn’t think divesting from fossil fuel companies will be effective.

University of Vermont students converged in the Davis Center Friday afternoon to speak out in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Courtesy photo

University of Vermont students converged in the Davis Center Friday afternoon to speak out in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Courtesy photo

“I think that the fossil fuel industry is too broad” a target, he said on the phone this week. “If I were targeting someone for action, I would target the coal industry. If you can get rid of coal emissions, you’ve taken by far the biggest step to get to a reduced carbon economy.”

He’s especially concerned that by divesting from fossil fuel companies, shareholders can no longer use their proxy vote to influence the behavior of those companies.

“If you don’t have your shares of stock, you can’t vote. I think it’s abandoning a huge form of corporate advocacy,” he said.

For example, Earle said climate change initiatives are getting more common in large corporations. If colleges and universities committed to voting in favor of them, they could “really get management’s attention.”

“On some level,” said Earle, “it’s analogous to citizenship.”

Mark Kritzman, a senior lecturer in finance at MIT, is also skeptical about divestment, but for a different reason.

“It is an unarguable mathematical truth that divestment is costly,” wrote Kritzman in an email to VTDigger. “If people were honest with themselves, they would take these costs into account and try to determine whether it is more effective to incur these costs and, by doing so, influence behavior, or avoid these costs and apply the savings directly toward advancing their goals.”

At a panel discussion at Middlebury College last month, Kritzman described a simulation he conducted to estimate the cost of socially responsible investing. For a $1 billion portfolio, socially responsible investing could cost as much as $420 million over 20 years, said Kritzman, as reported on Middlebury College’s website. (Note that Kritzman’s analysis looked at socially responsible investing in general, not just divestment).

In contrast, Tom Steyer, a billionaire and former investor, sent a statement to the board of trustees of Middlebury College saying that divestment is feasible, important, and a good investment strategy.

“At the moment, other investors have not fully realized the risk that carbon reserves will become a stranded asset,” he wrote. “If you settle for some mild measure like ‘voting your proxies,’ let me assure you that the leverage of your economic power … will be de minimis, a small peep that will be easily drowned out.”

But a small peep might be just what Vermont’s divestment campaigns are promising. Middlebury has the largest endowment of all the schools with campaigns — $908 million in 2011, according to U.S. News & World Report. That’s followed by UVM at $327 million, St. Michael’s at $71 million, Green Mountain at $3 million, and Sterling, which already promised to divest, at $960,000. All together, that’s about $1.31 billion. By comparison, Dartmouth, which also has a divestment campaign, has an endowment of $3.5 billion, as reported by Sarah Brubeck in the Valley News.

If, like Middlebury, all these schools have invested 3.6 percent in fossil fuels, by divesting they’ll be taking $47 million away from fossil fuel companies. For companies that spend, as McKibben says Exxon does, $100 million per day prospecting for new fossil fuel reserves, that’s a small peep.

Yet others argue that what is a small peep to big oil can make a bigger noise if you move it into investments in renewable energy. And what if Vermont’s small actions generate a larger movement by demonstrating to schools in other states that divestment can be done? Then that peep gets louder – maybe not a roar, but a pretty loud chirp.

Vermont is leading the Northeast in college divestment campaigns. Based on the number of schools signed up on Gofossilfree.org, there are seven colleges and universities with campaigns in Vermont, out of 23 schools total. That’s the greatest proportion of schools with campaigns in the Northeast. New York, for example, has the most schools signed up of any Northeastern state (32), but also has more colleges and universities in general (about 100).

Fossil-free goes national

What’s next for the students leading these campaigns? At all five schools, student leaders see their task as building student support and beginning or continuing conversations with school administrators.

“We need to keep the pressure on the administration,” said Smyth of Middlebury.

Smyth is headed to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania next weekend for what he called a “giant national divestment student convergence,” an event called “Power Up.” There, nearly 200 students from dozens of schools will train and be trained to campaign effectively.

Vermont students have also planned events at their own schools to mobilize support. Fossil Free SMC has planned a Valentine-themed break-up party — as in, break up with fossil fuels — for Thursday, Feb. 21. Activism @ GMC will host a teach-in on Feb. 27, with McKibben giving a presentation via Skype. Middlebury will March Forth for Divestment on Mar. 4.

The student activists are galvanized by Sterling College’s promise to divest, despite it’s small size, and they are optimistic.

“We’re excited about this whole thing,” said Hannah Weller, a senior at Green Mountain College. She hopes her school will see its competitors divesting and jump on the bandwagon.

Kaitlyn Newdorf, a senior at St. Michael’s College, said, “We’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from professors, students, and the president.”

Gilbert, who is a master’s degree student in energy regulation and law at Vermont Law School, is hopeful because his school is already environmentally focused. “There’s probably a pretty good chance we’ll get our endowment divested, if not this semester, within the next few years.”

It’s not just schools that are being pushed to divest. Gofossilfree.org lists four off-campus campaigns: the United Church of Christ, California Teachers Pension Fund, the city of Seattle, and the state of Vermont.

Chris Pearson

Rep. Chris Pearson, P-Burlington.

Reps. Christopher Pearson, P-Burlington, and Kesha Ram, D-Burlington, and 23 others introduced a bill on Feb. 14 to come up with a plan to divest state retirement funds from fossil fuel companies within three years. The bill is now under consideration by the Committee on Government Operations.

State retirement investments were worth nearly $1.4 billion as of June 2011, according to the state website — much bigger than many college endowments.

Gilbert, of Vermont Law School, is aware that college divestment won’t make a big dent in the fossil fuel industry’s financial outlook.

“More likely than not, it’s going to be a largely symbolic move,” he said. “If states start to divest, that’s when you start to talk about major investments.”

Smyth of Middlebury agrees that it’s not just about the money.

“We think of divestment as a big reminder, refresher, and impetus for people to realize that this is the prime issue of our generation,” he said. “And really it’s the most urgent issue of our generation. We have, ballpark, 10 years to make some really serious change if we want to keep the temperature rise below 2 degrees.”

The feeling of the students involved in this movement can perhaps be exemplified by Elley Vanderlinde, writing on UVM’s Student Climate Culture blog, about her experience at the anti-Keystone XL rally in Washington, D.C., last weekend:

“When Bill McKibben spoke to kick off the event, it started to sink in for me the reality of this crisis, and where I fit in to the solution. … And I was now a part of the biggest social movement in history. I will be able to say that I did something, and no one can take that away from me.”

Disclosure: Audrey Clark is a part-time temporary employee at the University of Vermont.

“Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/global-warmings-terrifying-new-math-20120719
Carbon Tracker: http://www.carbontracker.org/carbonbubble
Do The Math: http://math.350.org/
Middlebury College’s story on the Jan. 22 panel discussion: http://www.middlebury.edu/newsroom/node/444010
Green Mountain College’s SRI webpage: http://www.greenmtn.edu/administration/business_office/our-endowment.aspx
UVM’s Student Climate Culture blog: http://vermontscc.blogspot.com/

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Audrey Clark

About Audrey

Audrey Clark writes articles on climate change and the environment for VTDigger, including the monthly column Landscape Confidential. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from Prescott College in Arizona, she worked as a field ecology research assistant and college teaching assistant for five years. Among her adventures during that period, Audrey identified tiny flowers while kneeling on the burning ground in the Mojave Desert in the summer, interviewed sea turtle poachers in Africa, and tracked wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains. Audrey began studying the nature of Vermont in 2010 and received her master’s of science from the University of Vermont’s Field Naturalist Program in 2012. She has worked as a freelance environmental journalist since then. She also works at UVM’s Pringle Herbarium, where she handles 100-year-old plant specimens. Audrey is learning fiddle and scientific illustration and lives in Burlington with her partner, cat, several dozen guppies, a few shrimp, and too many snails.

Email: [email protected]

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