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September 5, 2017

Want to be one of Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools?” Don’t Divest!

Sierra Club’s annual ranking of environmentally conscious “cool schools” is out, and while many may assume that a divestment policy would propel a university to the top of the list, the top spots were actually more likely to go to a university that kept their fossil fuel investments than one that caved to divestment activists.  Really.  In fact, the activist group even called out many universities pursuing fake divestment policies.

In the top 20 “coolest schools” four of them–  Harvard University, The George Washington University (GW), Middlebury College, and Colby College— all, explicitly, rejected divestment policies while only three actually opted to purge their energy investments (Sierra Club counts Oregon State University as “divested” but that is not actually the case).

For the schools that rejected divestment, their reasoning was the same across the board, divesting isn’t a solution to climate change it’s a symbolic movement against an industry that the world is still heavily dependent on.  As Harvard University President put it in 2015:

“There are many dangers and it has little effective outcome. What would it mean if we sold our investments?  Very little, because there are plenty of other people who will invest in those firms.”

And back in 2013:

 “I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a  whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

Similarly, when rejecting divestment Middlebury College’s President Ronald D. Liebowitz and Colby’s William D. Adams thoroughly questioned how such a symbolic policy would combat climate change at all and GW  decided to focus their efforts on other sustainability measures.

What’s more, Sierra Club confronted schools on the many ways they try to “fake divest” in their “Cool School” evaluation criteria.  Their criteria breaks it down like this:

“Schools receive the max of the  following, if they have made a public decision to divest and have  responded to having divested in one of the following categories: 25 pts – Yes, our institution has divested from coal-mining corporations. 30pts – Yes, our institution has divested from coal-mining corporations and coal- dependent utilities. 30pts – Yes, our institution has divested  from coal-mining and tar-sands-mining corporations. 50pts – Yes, our institution has divested from all fossil fuels.”

And finally,

“Then, of the schools that have made a public decision to divest, if they have only done it for directly held shares, then they receive -10 points.”

While Sierra Club’s list did not favor schools that divested it did put a heavy focus on schools that had incorporated renewable sources into their electricity generation.  Of course what Sierra Club doesn’t highlight is the fact that many of these sources (think: solar, wind) are intermittent and therefore rely heavily on fast reacting fossil technologies, aka natural gas, for backup generation and would not be a viable option without it.

Other campus activities that earned schools a high place on Sierra Club’s list included an ecolympics, a green fashion show, introducing a “dimensions of nature” course, and, of course, sending students to China (on fossil fuel  powered planes) “to engage Chinese children and their families in wetland and biodiversity.”  While that’s all well and good, these efforts hardly seem more effective than Exxon’s research on algae-based energy,  Chevron’s investments in five joint-venture photovoltaic solar facilities, or the $1 billion Shell earmarked for clean energy spending each year.

Perhaps these efforts, and the important role that the energy industry is playing in combating climate change generally, are part of the reason the Sierra Club turned its back on the symbolic “shaming” policy that is divestment.  Could it be that this year’s rankings are Sierra Club’s tacit admission that divestment is dead?