Stanford’s own water depends on climate divestment

Oct. 21, 2014, 9:16 p.m.

Stanford students and Stanford University both fully deserve the laurels they won last spring by enacting a climate divestment policy on coal investments, telling those companies they can take their coal and “shovel” it back where it belongs.

That’s the good news, but we will watch those laurels wither in the heat of climate change unless we accomplish much more. In my seat, as a Stanford alumnus and Vice Chair of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, I see this in every action we take. We became the first water district in the country to enact a climate divestment policy back in August 2013, a comprehensive policy towards complete divestment from fossil fuel companies. The Water District works to provide water supply, flood protection and environmental restoration in our local watersheds and on the Bay.

Simply put, everything we do at the Water District in service of Stanford and the entire county is made harder by climate change. Our water supply is less reliable while water demand increases with heat. Flooding is less predictable and made even worse by sea level rise along the Bay and also along flooding creeks that get backed up at the Bay and spill over their banks. Environmental restoration of tidal wetlands also becomes more difficult under sea level rise, and our local steelhead trout swimming up the creek along Stanford property have to face longer and more severe droughts.

The question I posed last year was this: “Everything we do to serve the public is made more difficult by climate change, so why on earth should our money finance the corporations that make climate change worse and hold us back from the political solutions we need to save ourselves?” In just six weeks, we had the answer: a unanimous decision by the Santa Clara Valley Water District Board that we shouldn’t finance them.

Our district doesn’t control pension funds that are often invested in stocks, but as a large organization with large forthcoming projects, we have hundreds of millions of dollars invested in preparation for the time to begin construction. We had $3 million in bond investments in one oil company, Chevron, and that investment will be phased out while no new fossil fuel investments will happen.

Our action followed and was followed by many other fantastic divestment decisions, including Stanford’s decision to divest from coal earlier this year.

While Stanford’s action was wonderful, it’s not enough. The fact remains that if the fossil fuel corporations had to pay for the costs they impose on the rest of the world, particularly on people in the poorest countries, they would be terrible investments. We invest in fossil fuel companies because they benefit by imposing costs on other and on future generations, and they give us a cut. If we don’t want to be part of that deal, then we have to make a change.

The stock and other complicated investments by Stanford are significantly harder to unwind than the bond investments the Santa Clara Valley Water District deals with. All the more reason to start now, if the action is going to take a longer time to complete.

We often focus on climate change by the year 2100 as if that’s the end point, but many people reading this will live past that date, as will most of your children, so the difficulties will get even worse. This is a long, challenging problem. Stanford has taken a great first step on the climate divestment path. Now is time for the next step, to show the Stanford community isn’t hostage to fossil fuel corporations and is ready, or will be ready, to solve the climate crisis.

Brian Schmidt J.D. ’99

Brian Schmidt is the Vice Chair of the Santa Clara Valley Water District; he can be contacted at [email protected].

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