Opinion: Truman should divest from fossil fuels

image (11)

During the summer, former University President Troy Paino sent a farewell message to campus in which he took the opportunity to assess the accomplishments and setbacks that took place during his tenure.

One of the accomplishments he discussed was Truman State University’s increased environmental sustainability. Specifically, he congratulated the formation of the President’s Sustainability Action Committee, investment in an Energy Savings Plan, installation of solar panels around campus and the restoration of Bear Creek. All of these projects do deserve praise, as they are deeply necessary. However, despite these successes, Truman is not unequivocally dedicated to environmental sustainability.

Currently, through the University’s endowment, approximately half a million dollars are invested in fossil fuel companies such as Conoco, the Hess Corporation, BP and Total. If sustainability is understood to be a worthy commitment — as both the overwhelming majority of scientific evidence and Paino’s parting message suggest — it is imperative for the University community to reconsider the legitimacy of these investments and whether we should divest from fossil fuels altogether.

As it stands, there is a virtual scientific consensus that global society faces severe ecological challenges — the legitimacy of human-driven climate change is debated only in the margins. A 2014 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change describes human influence on the climate system as clear and its effect on human and natural systems as widespread. The report goes on to state human-produced greenhouse gasses will cause further warming, increasing the likelihood of “severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts.” The concrete manifestations of these “irreversible impacts” will not simply be hotter temperatures, but poorer crop yields and less accessible surface water — phenomena which will significantly reduce the food security of the world’s most vulnerable populations.

As 35 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, Truman’s investment in fossil fuel industries represents a portion of the capital making these climactic changes possible. And these changes — credibly linked with fossil fuel emissions by the IPCC and others — will have serious negative impacts on societies around the world. It would therefore be inappropriate to disregard or bracket off ethical questions about how these funds are being used.

Thankfully, sustainability has already proved to be a guiding principle in many of Truman’s activities. The programs reviewed in Paino’s message build on a shared understanding that the University has responsibilities to the communities it interacts with and is a part of. This is reflected in the 2013 Truman Sustainability Report, in which a number of the University’s “Sustainability Principles” are outlined. Among them are “conserving natural resources,” “acknowledging the interdependence of humanity and nature,” and “embracing intergenerational stewardship.” However, the public declaration of these commitments appears to seriously conflict with Truman State’s private investments. If Truman recognizes its Sustainability Principles to be legitimate, it should ensure they are borne out comprehensively — throughout all University operations including its financial activities.

The investment policy of the Truman State University Foundation, the body responsible for managing the endowment, “attempts to maintain a balance between funding current Truman State University Foundation operations and growing the endowment’s value,” according to its 2016 Policies and Bylaws. Fair enough. The Foundation’s investment philosophy and Truman’s public commitments to sustainability are not mutually exclusive.

In 2015, the University’s endowment was worth $39.8 million, according to the Foundation Endowment page on Truman’s website. This means the fossil fuel investments discussed in this article account for only 1.3 percent of the endowment’s total value. Divesting an amount of this size is both practical and possesses numerous precedents. To cite only one example — in 2014 the University of Dayton began the process of divesting some $35 million from fossil fuel companies, accounting for nearly 5 percent of the school’s overall endowment. Dayton then held a conference on how it should reinvest this money. There are many profitable and socially responsible alternatives to fossil fuels, one of course being alternative forms of energy. It is therefore extremely unlikely that divestment from fossil fuels would seriously undermine the integrity of the University’s endowment. However, investment in fossil fuels does seriously undermine the credibility of the University’s public commitments to sustainability and social responsibility. If these principles are to be taken seriously, as Paino’s message suggests, then students must begin to demand immediate steps toward divestment. We have a great deal at stake in the future.