Response To The Trustees’ Decision – The Williams Endowment Initiative And Divest Williams

Trustees of Williams College,

We are dismayed that you have rejected the request of students, faculty, staff, and alumni to divest the College’s $2.3 billion endowment from investment funds that include the world’s 200 largest publicly traded fossil-fuel companies. Despite support from 71% of students who voted in record numbers in a student referendum, 55% of faculty, and hundreds of alumni, you instead chose a less ambitious path that fails to provide the leadership so desperately required to confront the biggest challenge of our time. Perhaps most alarmingly, in making this decision, you declared that fossil fuel companies’ campaigns to attack science, spread misinformation, and impede informed democratic decision-making are consistent with the mission and values of the College. This is not consistent with the Williams we know and care about.

The initiatives announced in lieu of divestment (e.g. reducing campus emissions, purchasing carbon offsets, hiring new faculty focused on climate change) certainly represent a welcome step forward in the College’s response to climate change, but they fall far short of the impact that would have been achieved by including divestment in the plan. Given the urgency of global climate change, Williams College needs both investment and divestment.

This is why President Falk’s justification for a limited response to climate change is fundamentally flawed. To argue that we must first address our own fossil fuel consumption before demanding broader changes presents a false dichotomy that impedes efforts to engage fully with the urgent challenges of climate change. Furthermore, to divest is not asking someone else to change, as the president claimed. It is exercising responsibility. It is using our money in a manner that furthers our mission rather than in a way that works against it.

The College’s planned initiatives help it address its own carbon footprint, but we are well past the point where we can be satisfied with individuals and institutions taking care of their own backyards. Instead, we need a strategy that galvanizes people to demand meaningful national policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and that stigmatizes the fossil fuel industry to such a degree that legislators are willing to act for the public welfare despite the substantial political and financial interest of fossil fuel companies. Effective climate action will require policies such as a carbon tax, renewable energy incentives, dismantling of fossil fuel subsidies, and rejecting new fossil fuel infrastructure. Williams’s new climate plan simply fails to provide leadership toward the rapid, broad-based, and effective climate actions that the world needs.

Divestment, however, will help us achieve these policies. As more institutions commit to removing assets from the fossil fuel industry, the resulting stigmatization has multiple effects. Economically, banks and multilateral financing institutions begin to evaluate the increased risk of fossil fuel investments and they limit financing for further exploration, changes that are already underway. Politically, stigmatization builds citizen and legislator support for meaningful regulations, something that we have seen recently with the rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline and the investigation into Exxon-Mobil’s deliberate distortion of science. There is already ample evidence that the industry recognizes the fossil-fuel divestment movement as a powerful threat: Peabody Energy, one of the largest coal producers, stated that the divestment campaign may impact its share price; NRG cited the divestment movement as a key impetus for their decision to reduce CO2 emissions by 90 percent by 2050; and the fossil fuel lobby is funding public relations counter-campaigns, something that would be unnecessary were divestment insignificant. By contrast, campaigns to reduce fossil fuel consumption, like those that you propose, have no demonstrated record of influencing energy policy or economics.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of your announcement, however, is the rationale for rejecting divestment, based on the cost of complete abandonment of the current investment strategy within one year. The actual divestment proposal asked you to embark on a reasonable, strategic process of divestment over a five-year period, maintaining the current investment strategy by working with existing fund managers and seeking out new fund managers in order to develop a fossil-free portfolio. Large institutions with similar financial goals–such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Wallace Global Fund–have found that this gradual approach to divestment is feasible and rewarding, and the College’s own Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility demonstrated how the College could build toward divestment. Instead, you seem to have ignored the actual proposal, the analysis of your own advisory committee, and the real-world experience of other institutions that are currently divesting.

Chairman Eisenson described the College’s new climate actions as “a leadership response” that is “worthy of Williams.” We believe that the standard for worthiness must be whether these actions help establish us as a national and global leader. Two questions to ask when considering institutional leadership are: 1) Do these initiatives raise the bar for institutional action and thereby influence peer institutions to rise to new levels of commitment regarding climate change? 2) Do these initiatives capture the attention of policymakers and the media, helping to advance the national debate about climate change? Unfortunately, in many regards, your new plan merely helps Williams catch up to our peers. For example, Middlebury, Colby, Bowdoin, Oberlin, Colorado College, and several others have already achieved or developed plans for carbon neutrality; many others have committed to targeted hiring and impact investments. The lack of leadership is reflected in the lack of national press on the College’s announcement. Many people recognize Williams as the number Page 3 of 3 one liberal arts institution, but few if any will recognize us as a leader in addressing climate change based on our current commitments.

From the beginning, the divestment movement has been motivated by a deep love for the College, and a belief that Williams is at its best when all of its people come together to confront our most pressing challenges. Williams has always been an institution with outsized influence, and it is also an institution that has inculcated in its students a desire to use their knowledge for the betterment of the world. Now is the time to combine that influence and that calling. Now is the time for Williams to assume the mantle of true leadership, to strive for the most sustainable future possible for students and graduates in the 21st century.

Therefore, on behalf of hundreds of alumni and the majority of faculty and students who petitioned for divestment, we request that you (a) fully examine the path of divestment by engaging in ongoing conversations with existing fund managers and with other institutional investors who have committed to divestment, (b) make publicly available all of the documents and analysis that you considered when deliberating about divestment in order to facilitate a more comprehensive dialogue within the College community, and (c) engage divestment advocates in ongoing conversations about how to move toward real climate leadership. We firmly believe that Williams College, our investment office, and our fund managers can exercise creative, innovative leadership to forge a new path in investing. And we know that such leadership is necessary both for addressing climate change and for maintaining the integrity of the College as an institution grounded in respect for science, truth, and informed democracy.

We look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

The Williams Endowment Initiative and Divest Williams

13 thoughts on “Response To The Trustees’ Decision – The Williams Endowment Initiative And Divest Williams

  1. ^ knew good old ‘award winning political scientist’ would find his way over from ephblog. If you can spare a few hours from reading rightwing blowhard sites, you should go read up serious academic work by Greenstone, Nordhaus, Stavins. Substantially more ‘award winning’ than you, and probably still ‘climate debate extremists’ in your book.

  2. Dear John C. Drew, Ph.D.,

    Three things:
    1. Both links have a paywall.
    2. Why have you used this comment space to troll by posting incendiary and tangentially related comments which you support with links to paywall protected articles instead of engaging with your own thoughts on the issue at hand?
    3. The article seems to start out with the premise that global climate change isn’t really a big deal. Climate models based on empirical data, rather than on whether two WSJ journalists feel like the weather has been kind of chilly recently, disagree completely. Climate change isn’t a “debate,” it’s a real-world phenomenon.

  3. Dear Peter,

    I can’t beat that WSJ paywall. Nevertheless, the same basic information is found in another Matt Ridley article at Scientific American. See, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/climate-change-will-not-be-dangerous-for-a-long-time/

    I’m tossing in Ridley’s review of the most recent research because the letter above seems to assume that climate alarmists have the latest research on their side. They do not. If we had more intellectual diversity at Williams College, there should be a number of faculty members pointing out the obvious failures of the existing climate models and, consequently, the silliness of making drastic changes in our use of fossil fuels.

    If you read the latest research, then you will see that climate change is not a big deal. As Ridley writes: “If sensitivity is low and climate change continues at the same rate as it has over the past 50 years, then dangerous warming—usually defined as starting at 2 degrees C above pre-industrial levels—is about a century away. So we do not need to rush into subsidizing inefficient and land-hungry technologies, such as wind and solar or risk depriving poor people access to the beneficial effects of cheap electricity via fossil fuels.”

    What I would like is for the authors of the above letter to explain why Williams College should divest from fossil fuels when there is apparently little need for us to follow that course of action.

    Regards, John

    • I reviewed the critique of Ridley’s climate model. See, https://www.skepticalscience.com/lessons-ridley-ipcc-hansen.html

      Ridley’s model is clearly more accurate than the other models. The only reason the other models are suggested as a better fit by the author is that they use a “modified” temperature measure…not actual temperatures. :-) See, Figure 1.

      Ridley’s model actually becomes more accurate overtime while the other models are overestimating actual temperatures. Given the greater accuracy of Ridley’s model when using actual temperature readings, I think it is a little too soon to argue his model has been refuted…

  4. Instead of an article by a British nobleman with interests in coal mining (Matt Ridley), let’s look at the actual IPCC report. Here it is: http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/AR5_SYR_FINAL_SPM.pdf. Neat! We can see the data for ourselves. Under all but the two lowest emissions scenarios, climate change is “likely” to exceed 2°C by 2100, by which point it will be too late to do anything to prevent it from happening. That’s the thing about dangerous climate change benchmarks like that – you have to start trying to prevent them from happening before they happen (now), not after.
    Again, Dr. Drew, if, instead of indulging in climate change denial, you would like to discuss why or why not divestment is the best way for Williams to address climate change, I’m sure the authors of this article would be happy to engage with you.

  5. Peter, you just ignored someone’s entire argument by saying “an article by a British nobleman with interests in coal mining (Matt Ridley).” That’s intellectually weak. You also mis-characterize Drew’s views by accusing him of climate change denial. Matt Ridley does not deny climate change, he thinks climate change isn’t that big of a deal.

    You can agree or disagree with whomever or whatever you’d like but dismissing viewpoints or arguments won’t really get us anywhere. It just ends up being a shouting match.

  6. Be gentle. As I understand it, Peter is a freshman at Williams College. I retrieved some information from behind the WSJ paywall that is useful. Ridley writes:

    As for the impact of that future warming, a new study by a leading climate economist, Richard Tol of the University of Sussex, concludes that warming may well bring gains, because carbon dioxide causes crops and wild ecosystems to grow greener and more drought-resistant. In the long run, the negatives may outweigh these benefits, says Mr. Tol, but “the impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5°C warming.”

    If we assume that negative impacts from climate change start to get bad only after we see 3.5°C warming, then we have little to worry about for a very long time. According to the IPCC’s own report, “…the increase of global mean surface temperature by the end of the 21st century (2081–2100) relative to 1986–2005 is likely to be 0.3°C to 1.7°C under RCP2.6, 1.1°C to 2.6°C under RCP4.5, 1.4°C to 3.1°C under RCP6.0 and 2.6°C to 4.8°C under RCP8.59.”

    At this point, I think it is clear to nearly everyone that the IPCC’s previous models grossly overstated the dangers of global warming.

    “To put it bluntly,” Ridley writes, “climate change and its likely impact are proving slower and less harmful than we feared, while decarbonization of the economy is proving more painful and costly than we hoped.”

    Again, I don’t see any crisis here. I’m more afraid of global cooling than global warming.

  7. Until the college achieves carbon neutrality (or perhaps even is fossil-fuel-free) divestment is merely off-loading the moral burden to someone else. I do strongly support divestment in the long term, but I think it’s disingenuous to claim some kind of moral / ethical achievement for it if we’re still reliant on the product of the industry from which we divest.

  8. Dr. Drew,
    Thanks for taking the time to look me up in order to use the information to attempt to discredit me because of my age. What a classy move. I’m also a sophomore, not a freshman.

    “be,” rather than ignoring Dr. Drew’s entire argument, I pointed out that he was basing it entirely on the findings of a single person whose models are at odds with the scientific consensus (see link by Patti).

    Of course, it’s also possible to spin the IPCC’s report, as Dr. Drew has done. Again, he bases his argument on the prediction of a single person, Richard Tol. The IPCC figures he cites are accurate, but the IPCC does not agree with Tol that “the impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5°C warming.” Instead, the IPCC warns that “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts globally (high confidence). Mitigation involves some level
    of co-benefits and of risks due to adverse side effects, but these risks do not involve the same possibility of severe, widespread and irreversible impacts as risks from climate change, increasing the benefits from near-term mitigation efforts.”

    The IPCC’s report was created by and is based on the research of hundreds of scientists. Dr. Drew has found two who disagree. I’m sure he can look up some others and indulge his hobby of attempting to browbeat undergraduates with specious claims, but this whole argument is pretty futile. I encourage everyone to read the IPCC report for themselves. “Global cooling.” Give us a break.

    • Peter,

      My sophomore year I founded the Marxist student association at Occidental College. I later met the young Obama thanks to my friends in that group. Here’s a brief article I wrote in American Thinker that touches on my sophomore year of college.

      http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2011/02/meeting_young_obama.html

      At any rate, as you get older you may come to understand that even if the whole world thinks a certain way that doesn’t mean that they are right. My own research on the origins of the U.S. welfare state, for example, disrupted 50 years of scientific certainty about what caused welfare programs.

      At my age of 58, I have gotten quite skilled at withstanding social pressures and exposing inaccurate scientific paradigms. So, I’ll have to ask you to trust me on this one.

      The bottom line is that world temperatures have increased less than half as fast as the so-called scientific consensus predicted in 1990. Moreover, we haven’t seen any increase in frequency or intensity of storms, floods or droughts. Contrary to earlier predictions, NASA has revealed that we have experienced increases in both Antarctic sea ice and land-based ice.

      In my experience, public opinion always lags behind the real science. Accordingly, I think a lot of us will be less concerned with climate warning as we learn, as Ridley points out:

      “The latest science on the “sensitivity” of the world’s temperature to a doubling of carbon-dioxide levels (from 0.03% of the air to 0.06%) is also reassuring. Several recent peer-reviewed studies of climate sensitivity based on actual observations, including one published in 2013 in Nature Geoscience with 14 mainstream IPCC authors, conclude that this key measure is much lower—about 30%-50% lower—than the climate models are generally assuming.”

      and

      “A key study published in the Journal of Climate this year by Bjorn Stevens of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, found that the cooling impact of sulfate emissions has held back global warming less than thought till now, again implying less sensitivity.”

      Overtime, I think most of us become more conservative. We get better at identifying fads, inappropriate social pressures, and ideological movements that pretend to be scientific certainties. For a great article that points out the flaws of the IPCC’s climate models, check out S. Fred Singer’s recent article in American Thinker.

      http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2015/11/the_burden_of_proof_on_climate_change_.html

      Regards,

      Dr. Drew

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