Students form a giant sun in Washington Square Park. (Photo courtesy of Williams Agate.)
NYU’s Divest campaign met with senior university administrators on Wednesday, providing a faint glimpse of hope for a provocative movement that’s been spreading quickly at other universities across the nation.
At the same moment, NYU students, alumni, and supporters formed a giant sun in the middle of Washington Square Park; waving orange balloons to a chorus of “Let The Sunshine In.” The action was meant as a motion of solidarity to call attention to the pressing nature of the fossil fuel divestment campaign, and the climate movement itself.
“The climate crisis is incredibly urgent, and we need to move as fast as we can,” Belinda Rodriguez, NYU alumnus and leader of the student demonstration, told NYU Local. “We hope that NYU will come out as a leader in this movement.”
The group, which hosted author and climate activist Bill McKibben last February, is calling for the university to immediately freeze its new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and to phase out all other existing oil and gas company holdings within the next five years. On Wednesday, they met with several top stakeholders, including NYU’s Executive Vice President Mike Alfano (President John Sexton’s second-in-command), Executive Vice President for Finance and Information Technology Martin Dorph, and Executive Vice President of Operations Alison Leary to discuss the issue. The group’s main argument was that their cause was a “natural extension” of the university’s stated commitment to sustainability.
“Our global university is inescapably ‘in and of this world,’ indeed embedded within it,” said Julianne Warren, ecologist and professor in Liberal Studies and Environmental Studies, who led the contingent to the twelfth floor of Bobst. “Since fossil fuel burning is the major direct factor in climate change, it makes sense for the university to divest from the fossil fuel industry in harmony with its endowment’s mission of intergenerational stewardship.”
Steven Rasovsky, Class of 2012 alumnus and member of NYU Divest, said that if the portion of NYU’s portfolio in the energy sector is an estimated nine percent, then the amount invested in these companies would be about $250 million. If those investments were divested, this sum would be lost over the next twenty years. However, as the Divest members were quick to point out, there are other ways of investing in ‘carbon-free’ portfolio, without any loss in profit.
And as a large, urban school with an endowment of $2.755 billion and student body of 38,391, NYU certainly has a hefty influence. But one of the biggest challenges faced by NYU’s Divest campaign has been the lack of transparency concerning the school’s investment portfolio. When asked for comment, John Beckman, NYU’s Vice President for Public Affairs, would not confirm Rasovsky’s numbers. Beckman added in an e-mail:
“…The endowment is not best used as a vehicle of political expression, but that from time-to-time, when there are issues of sufficient concern, the mechanism we have in place to consider such matters is the University Senate.”
Beckman also called the meeting a “cordial discussion” about the university’s record of sustainability initiatives, as well as the subject of divestment. Members of NYU Divest, too, voiced their support for the universities’ accomplishments, praising the co-generation plant, which famously provided energy to students and nearby residents during hurricane Sandy.
“We are grateful and supportive of NYU Sustainability’s stellar work at bringing down greenhouse gas emissions in their operations,” Warren said.
The administration, however, has expressed several arguments against the divestment scheme – mainly the notion that, through unintended consequences, divesting could hurt those people in developing countries who rely large fossil fuel companies as a source of income, or that the project is not feasible.
“Climate change is the number one unintended consequence!” Warren said in response. She added, “How feasible is it to live in a world with climate change? Physics is not going to back down.”
NYU’s divestment campaign grew out of a larger movement led by the climate change organization 350.org (which McKibben leads), which calls for shareholder divestment from large, environmentally harmful companies – particularly oil and gas companies. The organization’s name refers to climate scientists’ call to decrease the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, a safe upper limit to avoid permanent effects induced by climate change.
“It’s definitely been growing and getting bigger and bigger,” Catherine Skopic, environmental activist and NYU Class of 1971, said, dressed entirely in orange and holding a cluster of shiny balloons at the demonstration on Wednesday. “And NYU’s divestment program is a really important one.”
The next step for NYU Divest, it seems, will be the University Senate and the Board of Trustees, who will ultimately make the decision. But this poses its own challenges – many of the trustees have their own personal interests in the fossil fuel industry and are unlikely to vote in favor of a campaign against it. In particular is the board’s managing director, Ralph Alexander, who, as NYU Local reported, made his way from Exxon to BP to Riverstone Holdings, a company that invests in energy and power – mainly in the form of offshore oil exploration and extraction. Another trustee, Emirati businessman Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, who serves as Chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority and who oversaw the development of NYU’s campus in Abu Dhabi, began his career at Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
Although Rodriguez declined to comment on the group’s feelings about these obstacles, she does remain hopeful about the movement’s future.
“It’s inevitable – universities are going to divest,” she said, standing by dozens of her classmates and collaborators, an orange whistle dangling around her neck. “And why wouldn’t they – because climate change effects everyone. It’s a no-brainer.”
Dr. Warren has also provided NYU Local with his letter to John Sexton, which we are reprinting here with his permission:
Dear President Sexton,
As a member of your faculty, I write on behalf of a rising number of students, alumni, parents, and other New York University community members—calling ourselves “NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free!” –to request a meeting among you, me, Sophie Lasoff (Gallatin, ’15), Ben Hammar (CAS, ’13), Costanza Maio (GLS, ’15), Alyssa Evans (Gallatin ’15), Belinda Rodriguez (CAS, ’12), Steven Rasovsky (CAS, ’12) and Melanie Sluyter (Gallatin ‘13) before the end of this Spring 2013 term and at your earliest convenience. We would like to have a conversation with you about our global climate crisis and global climate justice. We would like to discuss how our school can help lead the world away from worsening the former and toward supporting the latter by divesting from the fossil fuel industry.
Earlier this month, Sophie, Belinda, and I had a chance to introduce ourselves to you at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Faculty Award reception where I was an honored recipient. In the course of this event you urged us to “do our homework,” encouraged me to “keep up the good work” and, indeed, to come talk with you. Those words meant a lot to us because amidst intensifying climate crisis, accompanied by long-term planetary consequences, the work is as challenging as it is urgent. With our NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free! consensus-building campaign underway and gaining momentum, this letter, and our desire for a deepening conversation with you, we are following up on your words.
The theme of this year’s week celebrating King’s spirit was “The Cost of a Dream Deferred.” “Hope deferred makes the heart sick,” reads the Biblical book of Proverbs, “but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” A sick heart, however, need not quench hope, as King’s life teaches us. We must continue nurturing justice, that tree of life that we all rightly desire, rooted in faith that truth triumphs. Along those lines, we believe, as King did, that dominating others is morally wrong. We understand that the same attitude of domination that causes one group of people to abuse another also has led some groups of people to dominate Earth. There are convincing evidences now that such human activities are running creation backward. Robust data show global losses of soil fertility, water purity, biodiversity, and depletions of ancient fossil stores of carbon leading to global atmospheric conditions, rising temperature, and climate change unprecedented in the history of the human species. We are in a climate crisis of interlinked consequences, including warming, rising, and acidifying oceans and more extreme weather events like droughts and hurricanes, threatening global food supplies and life ways, among many other things. The cost of dominating Earth as we continue to do includes harms to every one of us—the innocent and the guilty—who call it home.
Another powerful activist for justice, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, is now calling for the same passion and determination that overturned apartheid in South Africa to “defeat climate change.” Tutu told South Africans two years ago that, “climate change is an even greater threat to us than apartheid was, because as temperatures rise, millions of Africans will be deprived of water and crops. This will cause enormous suffering,” he says: “It is something we simply cannot allow.” As U.S. divestments from entities supporting apartheid helped defeat it two decades ago, today a growing national movement is asking our nation’s colleges and universities, alongside other measures, to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
Our appeal to you—in solidarity with now over 250 other U.S. colleges and universities and rising, as well as numerous faith groups and municipalities—includes the following:
1) To immediately freeze any new investment by NYU in fossil fuel companies.
2) To divest NYU from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years. We are asking, specifically, that NYU divest from the top 200 publicly-traded and government owned fossil fuel companies, which hold the vast majority of the world’s proven coal, oil, and gas reserves.
This appeal, we recognize, begs many technical questions related to how NYU can manage this financially. There are opportunities, alongside divestment, that might, however, further enhance the vibrancy of NYU’s economy, by encouraging reinvestment in entities that will promote climate justice and a healthier set of local milieus for our global academic mission; attracting students to an institution on the cutting edge of right; and being ahead of the curve in pulling our institution’s financial dependencies out of an industry under intensifying pressures and increasingly risky returns. These are matters we feel confident that NYU can handle with creativity and intelligence, leading the way for others.
The focus of our conversation right now with you, however, is on fossil fuel industry divestment as a powerful mechanism to help move away from further intensifying climate crisis and toward climate justice. This action is a prudentially and morally right one to take if NYU is to continue achieving its core mission of research and teaching and to live out its commitments to sustainability and, critically, intergenerational stewardship. NYU’s 2008 endowment literature states that its “basic mission” is to “serve future generations of students.” Using our endowment to fight climate change is in harmony with this mission since climate change threatens future generations like no other force has ever done. NYU’s “Climate Action Plan” commits us to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating and adapting to “the consequences of climate change as they impact New York City and the world.” It also acknowledges that NYU’s standards reach beyond economic values, including the understanding that necessary “short- and long-term social and environmental benefits” may sometimes trump direct financial return. Reducing NYU’s greenhouse gas emissions is work well done, with still more to do. Fossil fuel divestment, a short-term challenge, vitally complements NYU’s sustainability mission for long-term benefit by ensuring fiscal responsibility that reflects the needs of our local and global neighbors. Moreover, your own ideals, President Sexton, as stated in “The University as a Sanctuary,” include fighting “pernicious forces at work” devaluing “long-term dividends in favor of short-term results.” In alignment with NYU’s own vision, we believe that it does not make sense to keep investing in an industry for short-sighted gains, which, by its very nature, forecloses the long-term health and safety of NYU’s evolving global “community of communities.” We learned very practically how difficult it is to keep up education and research amidst Hurricane Sandy. Sandy gave us a taste of the sorts of extreme events we can expect more of if we keep investing in fossil fuels and of the costliness of the aftermath.
Fossil fuels don’t work for our planet and its life. To more concretely outline the climate change situation in relation to the fossil fuel industry, in brief, we present the following numbers from a 2012 article by journalist Bill McKibben, the person who introduced climate change to the U.S. public over 20 years ago:
1) Two degrees Celsius is the maximum temperature rise above the Holocene average the planet can experience leaving us any reasonable expectation of keeping Earth’s conditions within ranges that humanity has adapted to over our evolutionary history as a species. With lag effects, we are already more than half-way there.
2) 565 gigatons is the amount of carbon that we can burn before mid-century leaving any reasonable expectation of staying below that two degree threshold.
3) 2,795 gigatons is the amount of oil and gas the fossil fuel industry has in proven reserves, with ongoing explorations to claim even more.
These numbers mean that both prudentially and morally—two discourses that converge in our evolutionarily and ecologically interconnected world—we must keep at least 80% of proven fossil reserves in the ground. Fossil fuel divestment will contribute to making that happen, both directly and indirectly. With NYU leading forward on climate alongside a host of other institutions, divesting from the fossil fuel industry will leverage economic mechanisms to help create a shift toward energy alternatives. This coordinated effort will also send a powerful rippling message to other sectors, including policy-makers at all levels of governments, that bringing about climate justice is both important and urgent. Meanwhile, as a prestigious university—within our sanctuary—we have much exciting work to do in research and educating our students, from a diversity of creative perspectives, regarding how to move ahead living well in a post-fossil-fuel world.
President Sexton, I have studied and written much about the history of movements in the United States to protect the world-of-life. I understand that for centuries, through fits and starts, there have been some successes, but so far, it has been an overall failure. The U.S. itself is responsible for more than a quarter of greenhouse gases added to our planet’s atmosphere since around 1750 — and everyone is suffering because of it, including future generations. I believe that this failure is due, in part, to the fragmentation that special interests have brought to the overall cause of promoting Earth’s health. I believe that something that has never happened is happening now. I have been part of it in the streets, in my classrooms, and in other academic and faith settings. A new community is emerging that includes formerly divided interests—people who care about water, soils, birds, human health and racial, ethnic, economic, and every other sort of justice—now discovering and converging on something we all have in common: compassion for all of life. We are coming to see that domination quenches creativity and creativity is at the heart of the universe to which we belong. This gives me great hope and energy for the work to come.
In the words of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whom I know we both respect, NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free! desires to help NYU fulfill its educational and research mission as a “school of hope.” We desire that our students and faculty and others we influence “release their blazing imaginations into the world” in ways that do not conquer but harmonize contradictions evolving more intelligent and ever deeper compassion for Earth, that is, for one another. We respect the principles that you have set out as the President of NYU, recognizing that there are rare circumstances in which you would become willing to speak out and use the endowment as leverage to fight for a moral right. We believe that amidst global climate crisis, climate justice is such a circumstance. We ask that you speak out by supporting fossil fuel industry divestment at NYU. We also see that you have laid out a process leading to that potential act, which involves manifesting a university community consensus that is convincing to the University Senate to transmit it to the Board of Trustees, which you oversee. In the conversation we are asking to have with you, we are hoping that you might help us strategize how best to do this in the interests of our community while, at the same time, balancing the physical urgency of this situation. It is clear that fossil fuels don’t work for our planet and its life and that ceasing to burn them is urgent. One important difference between climate justice and other concerns is that the buck stops with the physics of Earth, which keeps its own sense of time and consequence. It is wisest and most prudent to choose to move away from an attitude of Earth domination to harmonize better within Earth’s ways. The longer we wait, the more chance there is that, in McKibben’s words, that “timetable set by physics” will have acted for us with consequences that are difficult to imagine.
Please let us know at your soonest convenience when we might come in to talk with you. We hope that NYU will lead the way in this rapidly emerging national movement of fossil fuel divestment. The costs of deferring such courageous action are too great to comprehend. For the bright, young minds in our institution, for our evolving “community of communities,” this is the time for the global university—to which we proudly belong—to lead the world away from further intensifying climate crisis and toward planetary climate justice.
Sincerely yours, on behalf of NYU Divest: Go Fossil Free!,
Julianne Lutz Warren