Abandonment Issues: Northeastern and the Fossil Fuel Industry

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 8.44.18 PMOn Monday, Northeastern’s administration announced that it will direct $25 million of its $700 million endowment fund to investments focused on “sustainability, including clean energy, renew­ables, green building, and sus­tain­able water and agriculture.” In doing so, the administration and Board of Trustees took a clear stance against fossil fuel divestment.

According to Thomas Nedell, treasurer and senior vice pres­i­dent for finance, “We have deliber­ately chosen to invest, not divest. This approach is con­sis­tent with Northeastern’s char­acter as an insti­tu­tion that actively engages with the world, not one that retreats from global chal­lenges.”

Socially responsible investment is indeed crucial, but it is extremely troubling that our administration believes divestment is antithetical to active engagement with global challenges. They present a false choice that fails to grasp the true extent of action needed to mitigate the effects of climate change. Rejecting divestment in this manner underscores Northeastern’s tacit support of the fossil fuel industry’s destructive business model, and undercuts the gains that this investment decision seeks to make. There are strategies that compliment divestment, but there is no substitute for divestment.

We are writing to our Northeastern community today because half-measures are not enough. It is time to take bold, comprehensive action to address climate change. It is time to divest.

Investment alone is dismissive of the student voice.

In 2014, the Northeastern student body voted in favor of divesting the University’s endowment from fossil fuels, eventually leading to the formation of the Social Impact Council. Tellingly, Monday’s statement makes no reference to this event. In making its decision to disregard fossil fuel divestment, the administration and Board of Trustees have attempted to silence their students. This is not the first time Northeastern has aimed to erase the student narrative. Last spring, Northeastern chose to threaten 20 students with arrest as opposed to providing a timeline for engagement on the issue of divestment.

Furthermore, the University’s own Social Impact Council endorsed divestment after months of review, calling it a “requisite move for staying true to the moral underpinning of the University’s mission”. The report also emphasized that “the process of developing a plan for institutional sustainability must be transparent and inclusive”. Today’s announcement flies in the face of these recommendations. The administration chose not to consult with students before making this decision, and rejected multiple appeals to open a dialogue between the Board of Trustees and Northeastern students regarding this issue. We have been bypassed and forced to bear witness as our administration once again puts profit over people.

This $25 million investment in sustainable ventures represents the continuation of the status quo, and does not fully address the will of the student body. Instead of standing up to the fossil fuel industry, Northeastern has signaled that it is content to work within a system that supports business-as-usual. Students realize that our University’s continued investment in fossil fuel companies is a moral discrepancy – one that we are unwilling to stand for as members of this institution.

The administration’s priorities are not our priorities. Their vision is not our vision.

Investment alone is immoral.

Investment in sustainable initiatives is an important step, but it does nothing to confront the forces ultimately responsible for our present crisis. The fossil fuel industry wields undue influence within our federal, state, and local legislatures. To ignore this is to deny our political reality. No matter how much we invest in sustainable solutions, they cannot thrive in a context where decision-makers answer to the fossil fuel industry first, and the people second.

By neglecting the root of the problem, Northeastern sets itself up to experience first-hand the barriers created by the fossil fuel industry. The industry’s vast financial resources and PR machine allow it to block any major changes that could be brought about by our investment in sustainable ventures, a trend we’ve seen time and time again across the country.

Further, Northeastern’s statement skirts our moral responsibility to act on climate. Climate change and the work of the fossil fuel industry causes a myriad of well-documented social injuries, including public health hazards that disproportionately affect marginalized communities and undue harm to regions of the world that have contributed least to climate change. In addition, recent revelations of the deliberate cultivation climate misinformation by Exxon Mobil are prudent cause for public denunciation of the fossil fuel industry. Divestment shows the world that we, an institution of higher learning and leadership, will not stand for this industry’s harmful and obstructionist behavior.

The University’s Social Impact Council stated the following:

…the fossil fuel industry has leveraged their wealth and society’s dependence on their products to stymie global efforts to combat climate change. By investing in the fossil fuel industry, Northeastern University is directly, though inadvertently, profiting from this political inaction and its devastating consequences. For many, no amount of energy- or resource-saving measures taken on campus can palliate the moral inconsistency of retaining fossil fuel investments.”

In choosing to remain invested in fossil fuels, Northeastern has abandoned the pretense that their complicity in the deliberate obstruction of climate action is inadvertent.

Investment alone is insufficient.

The press release accurately notes that the university holds no direct investments in fossil fuel companies. As stated, this is due to the size and structure of our endowment, which remains exposed to the fossil fuel industry through indirect investments in commingled funds. It is not the result of an ethical commitment to climate action on Northeastern’s part, and as such there is no moral standard to prevent Northeastern from investing directly in fossil fuel companies in the future.

Further, the decision’s focus on direct investments ignores the options available to the university. A true commitment to combating climate change would necessitate working with fund managers to pursue divestment, or exploring the growing number of fossil-free funds. The endowments of Pitzer College and the University of Dayton are largely held in commingled funds, but they pursued full divestment nonetheless. Syracuse University immediately ended direct investments, and called on the managers of its commingled funds to pursue divestment as well.

By deliberately withdrawing its investments from the fossil fuel industry, Northeastern would take a stance against the fossil fuel industry’s business model, a business model that profits off the destruction of land, lives, and livelihoods. Monday’s statement declines to condemn the fossil fuel industry’s actions, and in doing so fails to contend with the threat they pose to our futures. Commingled funds cannot be used as a mechanism to shield the university from the moral implications of its investments.

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The climate crisis will not be solved by half-measures. In refusing to take a stand against the fossil fuel industry, Northeastern is retreating from the most consequential aspect of the very global challenge it is attempting to address. Political impasse represents a loss of one of the greatest privileges afforded to an institution of higher education: the privilege to embody the best and the brightest ideals of our current and future society. As a self-touted “recognized leader” in sustainability practices, Northeastern University’s decision to shy away from addressing the root causes of climate change represents the bowing down of our institution to the power and influence of the fossil fuel industry.

Peer institutions, such as UMass, have already begun to stand up to the fossil fuel industry. They are putting their institution’s values, and their students’ values, first. Every day that Northeastern remains invested in the fossil fuel industry is a failure to demonstrate bold leadership. We once again call on our University to #LeadWithUs – the time is now.