Since Education Matters, I’m Guessing Middlebury Will Divest


Middlebury trustees are both intelligent and compassionate, the qualities they share with the students they admit to the college. But since the premise of college is that you emerge still wiser after the passage of four years — that new information changes us — it’s probably time to look at the lessons learned over the last half decade since Middlebury’s board first took up the question of fossil fuel divestment. Let’s examine the evidence that has emerged in the course of those years, a learning process that has accelerated in recent weeks as big cities like New York have pledged to sell off billions in oil and gas stocks.

Climate change has gotten far far worse. The last five years have seen global warming move from mostly theoretical to entirely disastrous. We’ve watched vast swaths of the planet’s coral reefs die in the course of weeks; we’ve seen new diseases ride the expanded range of mosquitoes across entire continents; our satellites have shown the north and south poles melting at unprecedented pace. Just in the two percent of the planet covered by the U.S., the last six months has seen the highest rainfall ever recorded (Hurricane Harvey), the longest extreme winds (Irma) and the horrific destruction of Puerto Rico (Maria). Oh, and the biggest wildfire in California history, followed by epic rains that resulted in mudslides that killed 20 people. There is no greater injustice on our planet than the rampant climate change that overwhelms the poor and vulnerable, and since Middlebury invests in fossil fuel, it owns a small piece of each of these sadnesses.

The oil companies have been shown to be dishonest, on a remarkable scale. One knew, five years ago, that they were irresponsible — that their business plan of ever more exploration and drilling was at odds with what every scientist said the atmosphere could absorb. But three years ago great investigative reporting revealed that they had actually known everything about climate change three decades ago, and engaged in a systematic cover-up. That’s why cities from San Francisco to New York have filed suit. But whether it turns out to be technically illegal, it’s clearly intellectually corrupt; were Exxon a Middlebury student, it would have been rightly disciplined for shading the truth.

Oil and gas investments have proven to be unsound, vastly underperforming the broader equities market. Had the trustees heeded faculty, student and alumni opinion five years ago, the endowment would be larger now, and we could afford more financial aid. Many other investors — including groups like the Rockefeller philanthropies that once invested with Middlebury’s own brokers — have broken free and prospered, both morally and financially. But it’s not too late: given the rapid plunges in the price of renewable energy, the fossil fuel industry will remain under unrelenting pressure. So there’s still money to lose, unless we act.

Divestment turns out to play an enormously positive role. Studies released this year show that it has both dramatically amped up the level of concern and action about global warming, and also cost the fossil fuel industry serious money that it would otherwise have spent on exploration. By contrast, Middlebury’s notion that it could usefully “engage” the fossil fuel companies has proven hollow. At a few companies it has produced a few concessions — Exxon, for instance, has said it will start providing “climate risk disclosure” on new projects. But that’s not much help: we can see what the climate risk is. And we can also see that they and their trade groups continue to lobby for ever more openings: in just the past month they’ve won the right to drill off the entire American coast, not to mention inside Alaska’s largest wildlife refuge. “Engagement” has turned out to be “cover.”

This list of new evidence has convinced many who were at first reluctant. New York City, for instance, capital of the planet’s financial system, announced this month it would not only divest from fossil fuel but sue the five largest oil companies for the damages incurred in Hurricane Sandy. In November, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund took the same step — and that’s the largest pool of investment capital on the planet, a trillion dollars earned off North Sea oil. The smart money, in other words, is now fleeing.

We are all, of course, proud of Middlebury. I’ve spent time on more college campuses than most people, and I’ve never met a finer president than Laurie Patton; the board of trustees proved its environmental concern when it moved all those Breadloaf acres into permanent conservation status. And now they can prove that education really works — that when new information emerges, as it has over the last half-decade, people can change. If it goes for students, it should go for trustees, and from some of the conversations I’ve had on campus, I remain hopeful.

In the Trump years, it’s clear we can’t rely on the government to take care of our biggest problems. We have to do what we can ourselves, and what Middlebury can do is divest. Not “some day,” not after yet another committee offers yet another report, but as soon as possible, while it still makes a difference. Since I believe that education indeed matters, I believe we will.

Bill McKibben is Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury, and the co-founder of the climate change group

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