November 12, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Jonathan Lamson | Illustration by Kira Schulist
In January of 2020, Colorado College announced a major achievement: in accordance with their goal set in 2009, the school reached carbon neutrality via a 75% reduction in carbon emissions and the purchase of carbon offsets.
“CC has shown that significant progress in the climate impact of operations is possible in a relatively short period of time, and we are committed to showing that can be done in other sectors as well,” Provost Alan Townsend said at the time.
In line with this commitment, the school also publicized the creation of the Climate Change Task Force. Led by Provost Townsend, the group looked at (among other things) the college’s investments in fossil fuel stocks.
Between the task force and the Board of Trustees, the college began preliminary discussions about divestment from fossil fuels. The college divestment movement, which began in the United States at a tiny college in Maine with a $15 million endowment, has grown exponentially over the past decade.
However, following Provost Townsend’s departure and the onset of the pandemic, the task force dissolved. Presently, the Board of Trustees is no longer looking into divestment.
Student Trustee Gaby Jadotte ’22 noted that she had not heard any mention of the Climate Change Task Force in the board meetings that she has attended. Mae Rohrbach, the school’s Sustainability Coordinator, said that she had not been informed about any plans to revive the task force.
“I am not currently aware of any efforts that the college is making to divest from fossil fuels at this time,” Rohrbach said. “Our office hopes to investigate the possibility of divesting in the future.”
Globally, about $40 trillion has been committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment. This already appears to be threatening fossil fuel companies’ ability to raise money for new developments.
In a 2017 report to investors, Shell acknowledged “some groups are pressuring certain investors to divest their investments in fossil fuel companies. If this were to continue, it could have a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.”
Furthermore, in a recent CNN interview, CEO of Blackstone Stephen Schwarzman bemoaned that “if you try and raise money to drill holes, it’s almost impossible to get that money.”
The divestment movement is already widespread. Ivy League schools including Harvard, Dartmouth, and Brown have either divested or committed to divest from fossil fuels. They’ve been joined by multi-billion dollar funds including the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation.
Public institutions including the University of California school system, the University of Michigan, the state of Maine, and New York City have also divested. Colleges with similar enrollment numbers and endowments to CC, such as Middlebury and Reed, have also joined suit. Even large portions of the Catholic Church have divested at the direction of the Vatican.
But despite CC’s carbon neutrality and broad pontifications about sustainability, the school has yet to join the movement.
While CC will not disclose the extent of their investments in fossil fuels, we can still speculate with some back-of-the-napkin math. If the makeup of the school’s endowment roughly mirrors that of the S&P 500, about 6.6% of which is in fossil fuel stocks, then CC would have roughly $53 million invested in fossil fuels.
For Filip Carnogursky ’23, a student campaign organizer with the Sierra Club, this demonstrates a lack of commitment to sustainability from the school.
“We act green where it makes us a good promo and we support the fossil fuel status quo where it makes us good money,” he said. “A truly sustainable school does not go carbon neutral and support the fossil fuel industry at the same time.”
While the school maintains its fossil fuel investments, it points to the process of proxy voting as a method of social change. Proxy voting is essentially the process where the shareholders of a company can vote on a variety of issues related to a company’s management, including those related to its climate and social impact.
The school’s proxy votes were recently transferred over to the CC Investment Club (CCIC) from the Sustainability Office. The proxy voting applies to the school’s investments in global equities, which make up 46% of the endowment.
While the Sustainability Office has directed the students of the CCIC to vote with environmental priorities in mind, according to CCIC President Andy Fresen ’23, the school’s votes alone may not have much of an impact. He noted that while some groups have found success with ‘activist investing’ utilizing the proxy vote process, this typically requires significant resources and a concerted public campaign.
“I’d say typically it’s better to divest,” Fresen said. “You should only do the proxy voting if you have enough votes to actually make a difference, and if you actually have a plan to put those inputs to good use.”
As to why the school has yet to divest, Fresen said that they are likely just trying to look out for their bottom line. “We’ll see in ten years who’s made the correct market decision,” he added.
As the climate crisis accelerates, it does seem inevitable that the school will eventually divest from fossil fuels. Perhaps it will take a concerted campaign from student activists, or a few determined members of the administration or Board of Trustees. But for now, this remains only a fantasy.