Why Stanford should divest from fossil fuels

Opinion by Amara McCune
Nov. 10, 2015, 11:59 p.m.

When the email first showed up in my inbox, I curiously clicked the link, hastily entered my information in the unassuming white boxes, and then paused, musing over the cover image of the ring of students, hands locked in protest.

Am I really going to do this? What does this even entail? Could I get in trouble for this?

A thousand thoughts flashed through my mind, clashed with each other, crunched in like aluminum soda cans. I thought of the urgency in Al Gore’s tone as he spoke passionately of the inconvenient truth he warned of in his famous documentary. I remembered my seventh-grade self, watching said documentary and feeling sick to my stomach. I reflected on the times when I’d written speeches, put up flyers for an environmental club and told the boy sitting next to me in class to throw the paper in the goddamn recycling bin. I contemplated heroes and hypocrites.

Then I clicked “sign,” sending my name, two email addresses and cell phone number to the database of students who promised to “participate in nonviolent direct action to protest my University financially supporting, and therefore condoning, a business model that endangers public health, exacerbates climatic and political instability and disproportionately harms people of color and low-income communities around the world” unless Stanford divests from the fossil fuel industry.

As the weeks bore on, the messages accumulated. Some solicited sign-ups, others informed me of mandatory meetings and the latest one instructed me to pick a time slot to get legal training so that I may be ready to become one with the civilly disobedient. Yet as each one arrived, I kept putting off action. The pledge sat in the back of my mind, flaring up and dying off again like an incessant ocean swell. Would divestment even have any impact on the climate change conundrum?

The real problem with divestment is that it doesn’t result in any net loss of profit for the fossil fuel companies, since, in order to divest from the market, the shares have to be sold to some other buyer. Critics of divestment have even posed the argument that it is better to keep our shares, since then Stanford will have some significant voice in the direction of these companies. And even if we’re solely talking morals, then where is the line drawn? Should we also divest from companies that rely on fossil fuels, like car companies or manufacturing companies? What about the little things, the cars we drive and the products we consume? Although there are numerous laudable efforts to promote and use renewables on campus, our university runs primarily on fossil fuels. How can we even justify moral divestment if we literally burn the fuel we want to divest from ourselves?

This is the lifeblood of the climate change debate. We’ve become so reliant on fossil fuels as a species that we can’t possibly change every aspect of our lifestyles that depend on them, both because this would require such widespread, sweeping change and because there is not yet an alternative energy source efficient and cheap enough to accommodate this. And this doesn’t even take into account how fossil fuel companies have permeated our political atmosphere courtesy of political action committees, lobbying and millions of dollars pumped into candidates’ campaigns.

The other issue is that, even though we may romanticize the place, Stanford is, at the core, a business, which seeks to offer classes to students, employ professors and in turn produce intellectual property. Stanford’s investments help keep this business running, and the endowment needs to make money in order for this to occur. However, this fund is currently hovering around the $22.2 billion mark. While the details of particular investments are kept under wraps, it is safe to say that these funds do not depend entirely on the success of the fossil fuel industry in order to keep afloat. Certainly the university could reallocate its investments toward companies that don’t conflict with the moral compasses of a portion of its populace.

When Stanford divested from coal in 2014, we made waves and headlines and prompted other universities, like Georgetown, to follow in our footsteps. If anything, it was a symbolic move, showing that Stanford has enough confidence in alternative energy that it can place its stakes in more environmentally-friendly energy sources. If nothing else, this symbolic gesture can only promote the clean energy industry, which we so desperately need if we are going to have any shot at tackling climate change.

At some point, we as a species have got to wake up and face the cold, stinging truth of the matter. At some point, something is going to have to change, because we are slowly and surely suffocating ourselves, killing our planet day by day. We cannot have simply our own interests in mind here, because we’ve brought ourselves in so deep with regards to fossil fuels and environmental destruction that, at some point, we will drown. We’ve gotten so used to our collective tragedy of the commons that we are numb, deciding that life is easier if we just ignore the issue.

In this case, what it really boils down to is time. The upcoming U.N. climate conference in Paris provides an opportunity for the world to unite on the issue of climate change, and it is particularly critical due to the failure of previous worldwide efforts such as the Kyoto Protocol. Stanford’s divestment would provide support toward this collective effort, as well as help halt the moral conflict that arises with our continued investment in the fossil fuel industry. We as a species have brought this burden upon ourselves, and it is time we shoulder it with some responsibility.


Contact Amara McCune at amccune2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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