NYU Divest

Against the politicization of climate change

By Annie Felix

image via New York University

image via New York University


The mention of words like “stocks,” “bonds,” or, God forbid, “investment,” sends many of us NYU students (those of us who are not Sternies, that is) backing away cautiously with our hands up: “No Hablo Economics.”

So when the divestment groups on campus start talking about NYU’s dirty investments in fossil fuels, they’re met with an unsure silence – what is divestment exactly, and why should NYU do it?

Well, divestment is the opposite of investment – it is removing university funds (which come from our tuition money, so they’re our funds, really) from big fossil fuel corporations that pollute the environment and accelerate global warming. It is NYU taking our money out from unstable businesses that hurt thousands of people (and animals) around the world every day for obvious ethical and not-so-obvious financial reasons.

Divesting from fossil fuels is the environmentally-friendly way of handling money, especially for one of the most progressive and open-minded universities in the world.

Global warming is happening. There’s no doubt about it.

In 2010, some of the world’s most renowned climate scientists at the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) decreed that if the global atmospheric temperatures increased more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, climate change would become “dangerous.”

But we’re seeing the dangers of climate change even today – at only 0.6°C over pre-industrial levels.

As the fossil fuel industry continues to dig itself into a hole, looking for more coal and oil in the ground and under the sea, average global temperatures are rising from all the pollution it’s emitting – and this is causing a host of other problems, including stronger tropical storms and floods, parching droughts, and lung diseases in smog-heavy cities. Sea levels are rising, and freak weather is becoming the norm; cancer is on the rise, and climate change is here.

No one who has experienced the horrors of Hurricane Sandy or the 4-year drought in California, or the millions of other instances of climate change – like the drought in Syria which has led to wars and fleeing refugees - will deny that global warming is real and that we are in crisis; we have to stop this from escalating. Now.

At the rate at which the fossil fuel industry – which is the main emitter of carbon (the most problematic gas for climate change) - is going, we will go over our 2 degree limit very, very soon, and that unsettling confusion of extreme floods, droughts, hurricanes, and war over natural resources will take over.

Urging NYU to stop investing (and, therefore, just giving) our money in the fossil fuel industry is an important ethical step for us to take as students, privileged ones who study at a progressive, forward-thinking institution.

We know what the effects of climate change are – most of us have even felt it right here in Manhattan with Sandy – yet we are actively participating in it by freely giving our tuition money to fossil fuel companies to further exploit the planet. How can we, as students with a vantage point of knowing the consequences of climate change, stand by and let NYU participate exacerbate the issue.

Let’s Leave Oil Before Oil Leaves Us

While the above epigram may sound like one I stole from some sort of cheesy alternative energy poster (seriously guys… Save the polar, Go Solar!), the issue remains very real. Our reserve of fossil fuels is limited, and we’re using it up like there’s no tomorrow.

Even though the high demand for fuel and electricity has kept fossil fuel stock price up, this isn’t the best place for NYU to place its investments. Crude oil and coal reserves are close to being depleted to the bare minimum, and the day this limit is reached will also be the day the fossil fuel stock will plunge, taking much of NYU’s endowment with it. The world really is soon to run out of its fossil fuel reserves if the UNFCCC’s limit of a 2°C increase in temperatures is to be adhered to.

According to NYU Divest, only 565 billion tones (or gigatones) of carbon can be released into the atmosphere without hitting the UNFCCC limit. To put that into perspective: as of 2013, humanity releases at least 36.1 gigatones of carbon into the atmosphere every year. If we keep going at this rate, we only have about 15 years’ worth of fossil fuel left.

The value of fossil fuel stock is very much overestimated, because we don’t really know how much of the resources we have left, and it is very possible (and almost certain, given humanity’s extraordinarily unfounded belief in its own invincibility) that we may have less than we think.

So fossil fuel stock may or may not be precipitously overvalued, and this means that it can drop to its “real,” much lower value anytime, an ambiguity not for the faint of heart, or for those who have much to lose. For NYU, that would be 139 million dollars of loans and hard-earned pennies.

In financial jargon, this risk of plunging fossil fuel stock is called a ”Carbon Bubble” – a weak, bloated, overvalued globule full of air that could pop at any moment. Not only do NYU’s investments depend on the decreasing reserve of fossil fuels but they’re also banking on a mercurial, bloated stock “bubble” that could burst anytime.

Simply put, investing in fossil fuels is not a good idea – the stock is far too unreliable, as is the notion that there’s plenty of oil to go around. What will we do then?

Why NYU Should Divest

All in all, the argument for NYU investing in fossil fuels is not looking too good. Fossil fuel investment is ethically and financially irrational, and divestment should be the next obvious next step. Even the University Senate couldn’t come up with a good excuse, and voted unanimously in favor of divestment last spring. The issue is now being deliberated by NYU’s elusive Board of Directors (and it’s been this way since April 2015).

The case for divestment is straightforward, and necessitates little in the way of vacillation. Morally, NYU as an academic institution should be an asylum of peace and progress. It ought to find ways to stop environmental destruction, not contribute to it, and handle the assets it has taken from its students with care, rather than investing in a “bubble” stock whose burst is imminent.

So, why hasn’t NYU divested already? Why is there such a struggle to actually get the university to do it? The on-campus group NYU Divest has been campaigning since 2012, to no avail.

President John Sexton’s main argument against divestment is that this is a very political action, and academic institutions must stay neutral on such political issues as climate change. By divesting, NYU would be acknowledging both the existence of climate change, and also the undeniable role that human activities have played in it. But the infuriating hole in this argument is the fact that the stance the university holds right now - staying invested in the fossil fuel industry and funding it - amounts to siding with it. There isn’t, in fact, any neutrality. Additionally, divestment would not be a political statement, because it is now almost universally acknowledged that accelerated climate change is real, and a man-made phenomenon.Although a few people on the far-right of the political spectrum still deny climate change, the vast majority of America, especially NYU’s student body, is keenly aware of the perilous state our planet is in.

By claiming that climate change is a political and not a social issue, John Sexton is boxing it in, trivializing it. This is not just some political argument over which congressmen and women should idly debate; this is real, and this is happening to us. It is we, as a society, as students of an influential institution, who have to take control; we cannot be neutral bystanders while our future rests in the hands of those with power.

Divesting will be a real gesture that acknowledges the suffering that climate change has caused all over the world, from Hurricane Sandy’s damage right here in New York City to fatal heat waves in India. It will be the first recognition of how much humanity’s actions, embodied by the polluting fossil fuel industry, have impacted the earth and now its people.

Fossil Fuel Divestment is a social statement more than a political statement. It requires that the university stand up and acknowledge that climate change knows no allegiance on the typical left-right political spectrum; it is a scientific fact.


Originally published 12/09/15

Kaylee WarrenComment