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September 5, 2017

*UPDATE* Divestment Activists Slowly Gear Up for another Semester, Targeting John Hopkins First

UPDATE (9/5/2017, 9:10 a.m.): Refuel Our Future, the Hopkins Divestment group, reports that they “received word last week from the Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee (PIIAC) that their recommendation and report to the Board of Trustees will be made on Sept. 15th instead of the previously set date of Sept. 5th.”  More updates to come as the decision moves closer.

— Original Post, September 1, 2017 — 

As summer winds down and students head back to their universities, the national group 350.org is slowly ramping up their annual efforts to force college endowments to divest their fossil fuel holdings.

Perhaps their campaign this year is off to a sluggish start given the all of the rejections on campuses. Or maybe it’s because of premise of divestment has been debunked thoroughly, like (here, here, here, and here). Or maybe the National Association of Scholars (NAS) is right in officially classifying the movement as “dead.”

There is activity on one college campus to start the year. John Hopkins University (JHU), where the Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee (PIIAC) is expected to respond to a proposal put forth by JHU’s divestment group, “Refuel Our Future,” by September 5th.  The problem with their proposal, like so many proposals from other schools’ divestment groups, is that it is based upon many faulty assumptions. For starters, it claims:

“Fossil fuel divestment is a worldwide movement. Stanford, Syracuse, and Oxford and other           universities have either fully or partially divested from fossil fuels… in addition to the cities of Seattle, Madison and San Francisco (Fossil Free, 2015).”

This is completely inaccurate.   Stanford’s Board of Trustees rejected fossil fuel divestment on April 25, 2016; Syracuse divested only its direct investments but then revealed it did not have any direct investments in fossil fuels to begin with; same story with Oxford, which also pledged to divest the direct holdings it never had.  As for the cities: Seattle rejected divesting its pension fund from fossil fuels last month; San Francisco hasn’t divested either it’s city council simply urged its pension fund to divest back in 2013, the fund has not yet voted; and Madison never had any fossil fuel investments to begin with.

The proposal goes on to claim:

“More than 400 organizations and 2,000 individuals across the world with $2.6 trillion in assets have pledged to divest from fossil fuel companies, according to a new report from Arabella Advisors, a consultancy firm for philanthropies.”

Wrong again. This $2.6 trillion number is an aggregate of the entire endowment value of the universities who claimed that they fully or partially divested, and in no way reflects the actual value divested.  So for Syracuse and Oxford, institutions that had no assets to divest in the first place, Arabella added approximately $7.8 billion to their tally.   Over the years Arabella Advisors annual divestment report has been debunked again and again, even earning the ire of Mother Jones which stated “that big number — $2.6 trillion—has nothing to do with the amount of money that is actually being pulled out of fossil fuel stocks.”

Things are looking grim for JHU’s Refuel our Future, as the discussions leading up to next week show that there is a lot of opposition to divestment. The JHU administration has been clear that fossil fuel divestment would set a disturbing and unsustainable precedent. Following a divestment forum back in April, University President Ronald J. Daniels told the school newspaper:

“It’s important to figure out how to draw principled lines around what you would want to divest if you decide to divest. If you are going to think about divestment, is it just coal? Is it all fossil?’ …One could go on and on in terms of things that we find odious about types of corporate behavior. But then the question is ‘are every one of these going to be a target?’ That was an important theme that came up in the session last night.”

The PIIAC is expected to vote either to reject the proposal or to forward it to the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Investments. If they decide to move it forward, JHU’s administration should be skeptical; not only does fossil fuel divestment incur real costs for students and faculty but many of the universities and cities that did commit to divestment did so in name only in order to appease activists with groups like 350.org.  We can only hope that JHU follows in the footsteps of neighboring American University and George Washington University in flat-out rejecting fossil fuel divestment.