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September 21, 2016

Notre Dame says No to Divestment

Notre Dame University president Fr. John Jenkins has just announced the implementation of a five-year sustainability plan that unequivocally rejects divestment as an agenda that’s hypocritical and misaligned with the school’s energy consumption reality.

As Father Jenkins explained about the plan:

“Nearly all acknowledge that there is no practical plan by which we could cease using fossil fuels in the immediate future and continue the work of the University. It seems to me at least a practical inconsistency to attempt to stigmatize an industry, as proponents of divestment hope, from which, we admit, we must purchase.” [Emphasis added]

This is a huge blow to the divestment campaign, which has put so much effort and money into lobbying Catholic institutions, given the Pope’s emphasis on climate change. But Notre Dame follows a number of other Catholic universities including Boston College, which have also said no to divestment.  And as Notre Dame tweeted through its official handle today, this decision is perfectly aligned with Catholic teaching:

“The plan recognizes economic constraints and our role as educators and researchers, and is grounded in the principles of Catholic teaching.”

Instead of divesting, the Notre Dame Comprehensive Sustainability Strategy Report, put together by a committee of faculty, staff, undergraduate and graduate students, reviewed the University’s current sustainability practices to create an “ambitious and yet realistic” proposal that focuses investing in tangible climate-change solutions. That includes research on geothermal fields, implementing water conservation technologies, and focusing sustainable building construction and decreasing waste.

As the report notes, it is simply impossible to cease fossil fuel consumption and switch to renewables overnight. In fact, according to the report the campus power plant will actually increase investment in non-renewable natural gas over the next five years:

“Natural gas is an economical and efficient provisional substitute that produces fewer dangerous emissions and can fully replace coal in the short term. Over the next five years, Notre Dame will gradually reduce its coal consumption to zero by using more natural gas.”

Jenkin’s pragmatic approach to climate change strategy comes as no surprise after he expressed his opposition to divestment back in February of 2015 at a Town Hall meeting. Jenkins stated,

“We’re sitting in a room that’s heated and lighted, and when we drive to where we go, we use fossil fuels. It seems to me that it would seem to be hypocritical to say, ‘we’re going to divest from the companies we rely on for the energy, what we need to do business.’ So I think what we need is a gradual but more determined effort to make our use of energy sustainable.”

Jenkins’ point that divestment activists’ goal of stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry clearly runs contrary to the university’s heavy reliance on the industry’s products for everyday operations is in line what other academics have found. A report by University of Chicago Professor Daniel Fischel found there is no evidence of any discernible impact on the companies being targeted by divestment. On the other hand, the study found divested portfolios could produce returns 0.7 percentage points lower than ones that invested in energy, representing a 23 percent loss over 50 years.

Ultimately, Notre Dame’s official rejection of divestment in favor of practical solutions like utilizing natural gas will accomplish far more than symbolically stigmatizing the very fuels the school runs on.