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Yale: Whose Side are you Really On?

Guest Post from Yale Student, Rachel Calnek-Sugin

Faced with the urgency of the climate crisis and a federal government that is moving backwards on climate issues, this a moment when we turn to our institutions to lead.  And Yale has positioned itself as a leader: David Swensen, Yale’s Chief Investment Officer, wrote public letters in 2014 and 2016 urging Yale’s investment managers to take climate change into account.  But the hundreds of millions of dollars of fossil fuel investments we’ve disclosed with UNITE HERE Local 33 tell a different story.

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We now know that Yale is heavily invested in such carbon intensive processes as coal and fracking, and in companies under suit by local communities.  The reports we published with UNITE HERE Local 33 lay out four of Yale’s fossil fuel investments.  We now know that Yale acquired stock worth $230 million in Antero, one of the fastest growing U.S. fracking companies, held $59 million in oil and gas with Merit Energy Company, whose CEO is a Trump donor with a 20-year-long relationship to Yale, kept $109 million with a fund manager that placed Yale money in the Canadian fracking and tar sands production cycle, and invested $318 million with Farrallon, an estimated $2 million of which are in Whitehaven coal, the owner of Australia’s huge and heavily protested Maules Creek coal mine. Antero is currently facing over 200 suits by local community members in West Virginia. The Blueberry River First Nation sued the Province of British Columbia in 2015 and filed an injunction in 2016 to slow further oil and gas development in their traditional territory, which has been overrun by fossil fuel companies such as Painted Pony Petroleum, a fracking company financed by Yale through its fund manager ARC Financial. Maules Creek has been a site of massive resistance to deforestation, threats to the Gamilaray culture, and climate change, where activists have formed blockades, chained themselves to equipment, and hundreds have been arrested.  

Fossil Free Yale is a group of students who, faced with a rapidly warming planet, doesn’t know what our future will look like.  Communities—including some of our own communities—are already feeling the effects of climate change, from rising sea levels to health hazards to extreme weather.  We know, to some extent, what is coming: floods and famine, shifts in agriculture, massive displacement.  We know that the effects of climate change are not felt equally.  We also know what is causing anthropogenic climate change: the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.

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Student leaders deliver their divestment demand to the investment office in the wake of the announcement.

As a campaign, we are working towards a more just and sustainable future because we believe that such a future is possible.  A shift away from the fossil fuel industry—whose business model relies unequivocally on the extraction and combustion of fossil fuels—is a necessary part of that transition, and we believe it is inevitable.  But threatened by Trump’s fossil fuel agenda, his cabinet stocked with climate-deniers, and his regressive climate policies, we are afraid that shift will come too late.

Perhaps Yale believes that by doing nothing it is remaining neutral. But Yale is not doing nothing: these active, large-scale investments represent real culpability in bolstering the fossil fuel industry. Nor would doing nothing constitute neutrality. The clock is ticking on the climate crisis: the time we waste navigating administrative bureaucracy and doing investigative reporting into Yale’s tax forms because of the endowment’s opacity, is time we are letting slip away in the fight against climate change. Yale must take action and divest—waiting means taking the side of the fossil fuel industry that is perpetuating injustice and destroying our planet.

Fossil Free Yale has been calling on the University to divest for five years because we believe that what Yale does with its money matters.  It matters because the world watches what Yale does, and because many other university endowments follow the lead of David Swensen, who the New York Times calls an “endowment guru.” It matters because fossil fuel divestment is an international movement that is gaining momentum and will be strengthened by Yale’s commitment.  It matters because 25 billion dollars can do a lot of good if they are invested not in injustice, but in our futures.

We need Yale to heed the urgency of the climate crisis, as so many peer institutions recently have. Harvard will no longer directly invest in fossil fuels, Columbia and Barnard committed to partial divestment, and the endorsements of three University of California chancellors — from Davis, Santa Barbara, and Santa Cruz — put the UC endowment on the path to divestment.  These university leaders—pressured by bold student campaigns—understand this moment’s imperative to choose a side: that of the students for whom their institutions exist, over that of the Trump administration’s fossil fuel agenda.  As the fossil fuel divestment movement becomes mainstream, we do not want Yale to get left behind.  Even more, we do not want Yale to leave us behind. With hundreds of millions in fossil fuels, when will Yale choose the safety of our communities and its own students over its investment portfolio?