Dear Brown community,
Some of you may have already heard about Fossil Free Brown, a new campaign asking that Brown University remove its investments from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. We want to take this opportunity to introduce ourselves to the Brown community and clarify a couple of misperceptions surrounding the Corporation’s decision to not divest from coal last year.
For two years, the Brown Divest Coal campaign demanded that the Corporation divest from the 15 largest U.S. coal companies. The campaign collected over 3,600 petition signatures, held rallies and events, got media coverage from national news outlets and met several times with President Christina Paxson and Corporation members.
On Oct. 27, 2013, the Corporation, without holding a vote, decided not to divest from coal. Paxson said that while the social harm was clear, it was not enough to warrant divestment, and that divestment was an ineffective tool to change the behavior of the fossil fuel industry.
However, we have reason to believe University politics played a significant role in this decision. We had been repeatedly told that no large school (read: Harvard) had divested from fossil fuels.
It was a surprising decision given that prior to the Corporation meeting, Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility and Investment Policies had stated its support for coal divestment. In a letter to Paxson, ACCRIP stated, “The companies recommended for divestment perpetrate grave, indeed egregious, social harm, and there is no possible way to square our profiting from such harm with the values and principles of the University.”
When the Corporation made the decision not to divest, there were at least five Corporation members with ties to the fossil fuel industry. Though we asked that they recuse themselves from the decision for the sake of transparency and accountability, we received no response.
As we wrote in a column last October, among the five members listed were:
“Brian Moynihan ’81 P’14: Moynihan is on the (Corporation’s) Board of Trustees and is president and CEO of Bank of America, which as of Aug. 14, 2013 has $1 billion worth of holdings in 14 of the 15 companies in question.
Richard Friedman ’79: Friedman is on the Corporation’s Board of Fellows and is head of the Merchant Banking Division at Goldman Sachs, which as of Aug. 14, 2013 has $1.1 billion invested in 14 of the 15 companies that Brown is considering for divestment.
Steven Cohen P’08 P’16: Cohen is on the Board of Trustees, and is the founder and hedge fund manager of SAC Capital, which as of Aug. 14, 2013 has $33,597,000 in holdings in 11 of the 15 coal companies.
Theresia Gouw ’90: Gouw is a member of the Board of Fellows and a partner at Accel Partners. Accel-KKR, a partnership between Accel Partners and KKR, is a cofounder of globalCOAL, a global coal trading platform. Licensed users of globalCOAL include Arch Coal, Peabody Energy and Cloud Peak, all companies targeted for divestment.
Todd Fisher ’87 P’17: Fisher is on the Board of Trustees and is KKR & Co. L.P.’s global chief administrative officer. Accel-KKR is a cofounder of globalCOAL.”
Then in 2014, two important events took place. During a conference on climate change hosted at the Watson Institute for International Studies, Executive Secretary of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres spoke about the urgency of divestment. She then sent a letter directly to the University stating, “As individuals and as institutions we are all called upon to do the right thing, even if we stand alone in responding to the moral imperative.” A week later, it was clear that we would not stand alone when Stanford University divested from coal. This was embarrassing for universities like Brown that had failed to be climate leaders.
As these events unfolded, the campaign began discussing the idea of extending our ask to all fossil fuels. Most national and international campaigns across universities, cities and churches have been targeting the entire fossil fuel industry for obvious reasons. Why focus only on coal when gas and oil are also primary contributors to climate change? Even the heirs to John D. Rockefeller, who made his fortune on oil, have joined a group of “more than 800 global investors … (who) have pledged to withdraw a total of $50 billion from fossil fuel investments over the next five years,” as the Guardian reported last month.
The truth is that divestment will not financially affect these companies. But if enough universities and institutions around the world divested, it would remove the social license fossil fuel companies have to drive the climate crisis and undermine our political process. We can no longer pretend that our investments do not speak to the kind of university we are. Divestment is a moral imperative. Let’s make Brown’s investments sustainable, for the planet and for ourselves.
Fossil Free Brown is a campaign asking Brown University to remove its investments from the fossil fuel industry. Camila Bustos is a member of the Climate and Development Lab and Fossil Free Brown.
For questions, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This op-ed was originally published here and does not reflect the views of Brown University.