When Colleges Divest, Who Wins?
NEW YORK, November 10, 2015 | The National Association of Scholars (NAS) released today the first comprehensive account of the campaign to get colleges to sell off their investments in coal, oil, and natural gas companies.
Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels finds that the campus fossil fuel divestment campaign undermines intellectual freedom, democratic self-government, and responsible stewardship of natural resources. The report presents a wealth of original research and concludes with new essays by writers including Bill McKibben, the national leader of the divestment campaign, and Willie Soon, the Harvard Smithsonian physicist who is a prominent critic of the global warming “consensus.”
More Political Than Practical
Issued less than a month before the Paris climate talks in which President Obama is expected to repeat his vow to move America off fossil fuels to combat global warming, the NAS report shows that divestment is more of a political rallying cry than a practical step to improve the environment.
Peter Wood, president of the NAS, explained, “Divestment divides the political left. The campus activists often criticize President Obama for not going far enough in his ‘war on coal’ and his opposition to the Keystone Pipeline. Their campaign is meant to pressure him to take even more radical steps.”
As the study details, most divestments are empty political promises with little financial effect on fossil fuel companies. The leaders of the movement see the sham divestment decisions as part of the strategy. “The divestment campaign is designed to fail,” said Rachelle Peterson, director of research projects at NAS and author of Inside Divestment. “The organizers’ goal is not to cause colleges to divest, but to anger students at the refusal of colleges to divest fully and to turn their frustration into long-term antipathy toward the modern fossil fuel-based economy.”
Wood explained, “The movement pretends to change the way we generate energy, but its actual aim is to generate resentment, which is fuel for political demagoguery. The ultimate beneficiaries are rich people whose investments in ‘green energy’ will prosper only if they can trick the public to strand our reserves of coal, oil, and gas underground. They favor high-priced, inefficient technologies that happen to require massive government subsidies coupled with sweeping new government powers. Students drawn by ‘save the world’ rhetoric and prevented from ever hearing arguments on the other side have become willing pawns for a movement that, rightly understood, is profoundly anti-democratic and that will also consign much of humanity to perpetual poverty.”
Students as Pawns
Divestment campaigns, now on more than 1,000 American colleges and universities, have adopted tactics that violate the free speech of others. The activists increasingly obstruct fair and open debate by smearing opponents and by bullying other students. The NAS study documents these tactics with case studies of several colleges, including the birthplace of the divestment movement, Swarthmore College.
Wood explained, “The divestment campaigns have been organized by professional activists. Our report peels back the image the campaign projects of an organic student-led movement. In fact, it is a nationally orchestrated campaign with top-down directives.”
350.org, the organization that brought the campaign to national prominence, pays and trains students for activism and schedules campus protests. “The divestment movement is astroturf,” said Peterson.
Peterson also shows that some of the activists’ key claims are hollow. “We found that colleges and universities that claim to divest overwhelmingly choose to retain large portions of their fossil fuel investments.” On average, divestment decisions affect only about 1 percent of the college endowment and leave approximately 50 percent of fossil fuel investments in place. The study lists four “DINOs,” or divestments in name only; these are universities, including Oxford, whose divestment decisions resulted in selling no investments at all.
Inside Divestment follows the NAS’s March 2015 report, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.
Inside Divestment: The Illiberal Movement to Turn a Generation Against Fossil Fuels
The fossil fuel divestment movement (FFDM) is raging on America’s college campuses. On the surface, it is an effort to get colleges to sell off their investments in coal, oil, and gas. Its real goal is to radicalize students and stoke public support for drastic political and economic transformations.
· There are more than 1,000 campus-based fossil fuel divestment campaigns.
· 30 American colleges and universities, including Stanford and Georgetown, have divested.
· 72 percent of Harvard undergraduates voted to support fossil fuel divestment.
FFDM is Astroturf. It presents itself as student-led. In fact it is managed by professional activists.
· 350.org pays students to be activists, arranges summer training for activists, and offers paid internships for activists.
· The movement’s themes, Twitter hashtags, and “days of action” are determined top-down.
· Professors have given college credit for working on divestment campaigns and taught entire classes focused on fossil fuel divestment. Nearly 4,000 American professors have signed petitions or voted for fossil fuel divestment.
FFDM is elitist. It is driven by wealthy donors and deep-pocketed foundations and serves the material interests of Solyndra-style eco-cronyism.
· FFDM is most fervent at wealthy colleges such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Swarthmore.
· Tom Steyer (net worth $1.6 billion; largest contributor to Democratic Party 2014; Stanford trustee) bankrolls Bill McKibben’s 350.org.
· Schumann Media Center (assets $31 million) funds McKibben’s Middlebury College position and funded 350.org’s founding.
· Al Gore (net worth $173 million), founder of Generation Investment Management ($12 billion), called on Harvard and all other colleges to divest from fossil fuels.
FFDM is puppetry. The organizers are using the students and the colleges to advance their agenda at the Paris Climate talks.
· Activists say they plan to use universities as political pawns to drive popular support for an onerous climate pact at the UN climate summit this December.
· Student activists report that the purpose of divestment is to “politicize and radicalize students,” not to defund the fossil fuel industry.
FFDM is phony. Many of the claims of the organizers and supporters are hollow.
· Only 34 percent of “divested” colleges have fully shed their fossil fuel investments.
· Four of these are “DINOs”—divestments in name only. These four, including Oxford University, have sold no investments at all since their divestment decisions.
· Organizers admit that divestment has no net effect on fossil fuel companies. Their goal is student recruitment, not divestment per se.
FFDM is irrational. Divestment is sold to students as an answer to global warming, but taken on its own terms, divesting would have no meaningful effect on the Earth’s temperature.
· Advocates of divestment, including Bill McKibben, acknowledge that divestment will not decrease the share prices of fossil fuel companies or appreciably shrink their profits and access to capital.
· The two most popular reasons colleges give for divesting are to stop climate change (72 percent) and to support “sustainability” (69 percent). But fossil fuel investments affected by divestment decisions comprise only about 1 percent of the total college endowment.
· Many well-respected environmentalists dismiss divestment as a distraction from effective policies. These include Frank Wolak (director, Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, Stanford), Steven Cohen (executive director, Earth Institute, Columbia), Robert Stavins (lead author, three IPCC reports; professor of business and government, Harvard Kennedy School), and Mike Hulme (professor of climate change, University of East Anglia).
FFDM is political. Divestment turns the university endowment into a billboard for virtue signaling. It turns trustees and donors into political operatives rather than patrons of higher education.
· 83 percent of all divested colleges and universities in the United States are located in states that the Gallup Poll ranks as either “solid” or “leaning” toward the Democratic party. No state that is “solid” or “leaning” Republican has any divested colleges or universities.
· One-third of colleges and universities that reject divestment say that divestment would entangle the endowment in political battles and destroy the university’s political neutrality.
About the author: Rachelle Peterson is director of research projects at the National Association of Scholars. She is the co-author with Peter Wood of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism, published by the National Association of Scholars in March 2015.
About the National Association of Scholars: The National Association of Scholars is a network of scholars and citizens united by their commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. It upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.