Georgetown committee opts against endorsing full fossil fuel divestment

A student-led push to remove all investments in fossil fuels from the billion-dollar Georgetown University endowment has come up short.

The Georgetown student newspaper, The Hoya, reported Tuesday that the university's Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility voted Monday night against divestment from the 200 fossil fuel companies with the largest proven reserves, as proposed by the student group GU Fossil Free.

Instead, the committee recommended a partial divestment plan, one conducted “over a reasonable time period and consistent with good stewardship” that would target energy companies, primarily coal producers, “with the worst environmental impact, least commitment to alternative energy and least responsiveness to engagement efforts,” according to The Hoya.

The committee also stated that Georgetown should “proactively engage energy companies” to alter harmful environmental practices through shareholder engagement, and should continue its “significant and ongoing work” related to climate change and sustainability.

The recommendations from the responsible investment committee will now go before the finance committee of Georgetown's board of directors, who are expected to meet next in February. That committee's work is expected to play out over the next several months. 

GU Fossil Free began in the fall of 2012, among many similar efforts on college campuses nationwide -- including several other Catholic schools -- that originated with the Do the Math Tour organized by and Bill McKibben. The campaign pushed divestment as a response to curtail fossil fuel usage to prevent global temperatures from rising above the levels deemed safe by scientists.

In May 2013, the students met with the socially responsible investments committee, and in August presented its formal proposal: divestment of Georgetown’s $1.2 billion endowment from the 100 largest coal companies and 100 largest oil and gas companies.

Describing divestment as not only an opportunity but a moral imperative, the students said, “The injuries associated with fossil fuels are too great for us to forego such a promising chance to speed the transition to a more sustainable and more equitable economic system. … Furthermore, it is morally inconsistent to profit from activities exacerbating the environmental problems the University is working so hard to address elsewhere.”

Related: "Scholars explore Catholic path to fossil fuel divestment"

In a statement Monday, GU Fossil Free said the committee’s decision was disappointing. The called partial divestment “is a positive first step,” but one that would “greatly weaken the statement that full divestment would make.”

“Partial divestment is an insufficient tactic, and, in light of the challenges at hand, is ideologically inconsistent with the CISR’s mandate to align Georgetown’s investments with its ethical standards,” the statement read.

The group took issue with the recommendation to target coal companies, and called it “naïve” to think shareholder advocacy with fossil fuel companies would alter their behavior: “These companies’ entire business model revolves around the unethical extraction and combustion of the carbon reserves they profess to own; engaging with these companies will not change this fact.”

Responding to Pope Francis’ December message to United Nations climate negotiators in Lima, Peru -- that on climate change, “there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act” -- the students said that Georgetown had “an exceptional obligation” as a Catholic institution “founded on strong commitment to justice” to lead others on this issue.

“Comprehensive divestment would make Georgetown’s contribution to this conversation a substantive one -- we would be the first university with a comparable endowment to make such a commitment, and in doing so we would convey the message that a status-quo response to so urgent an issue is grossly insufficient,” they said.

Recently, college divestment efforts have had an up-and-down track record. Also on Tuesday, Duke University rejected a student proposal, while the University of Maine agreed to pull its investments in coal companies. On Jan. 22, Chalmers University of Technology became the first Swedish school to divest.

So far, the most notable school to take such action has been Stanford University, which in May pledged to divest from 100 coal companies. A month later, the University of Dayton in Ohio became the first Catholic school to begin to divest its endowment from coal, oil and other fossil fuels.

During the Lima climate talks, a group of nine bishops from five countries urged "an end to the fossil fuel era," to be replaced by renewable sources. Divestment supports have marked Feb. 13 and 14 for a Global Divestment Day, with events planned in more than 20 countries.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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