Loyola-Chicago climate conference discusses 'nuts and bolts' of fossil fuel divestment

Chicago — The second day of the three-day Loyola University Chicago Climate Change Conference began with a panel discussion on divestment from fossil fuels.

The Friday morning panel, titled “The Risks, Nuts, and Bolts of Divestment,” was chaired by Bruce Boyd, principal and senior managing director of Arabella Advisors, a company that works with foundations to improve planetary health and is now measuring global commitment to divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in alternative, clean energy sources. 

In his opening remarks, Boyd noted that divestments are currently at $50 billion and are expected to reach $150 billion by the start of the United Nations climate negotiations in Paris in December. He reported there is significant movement globally, including this year’s Global Divestment Day (Feb. 13-14), which was marked by 450 events in 60 countries.

Boyd also welcomed Catholic involvement, quoting Pope Francis as declaring an “ineluctable ethical imperative to act." He summed up his remarks with what he called the clear message to the world, “The age of burn what you want when you want is over.”

Previous Loyola climate conference coverage: “Jesuits schools explore their role in addressing climate change at Loyola Chicago conference

The first panelists were Iree Wheeler and Nico Cruz, student representatives from Seattle University, where students began a divestment movement following a 2013 talk on campus by 350.org’s Bill McKibben. They held a rally, gathered signatures, and before long, the student government and faculty got on board and a proposal went to university leadership.

There the effort hit a brick wall, with one official saying, “We don’t use the endowment to make political statements” -- a comment clearly embarrassing and uninformed for a leader in a school claiming a proud place in the Jesuit faith and justice mission, and supposedly guided by Catholic social tradition, which recognizes political decisions as ethical decisions.

Though the Seattle students didn’t convince leadership to divest, they did succeed in getting the university to look at the ethical implications of their investments and establish a committee on socially responsible investing. 

Lessons learned? They recognized that their movement had not been sophisticated enough about how investments work. Nor were they prepared when they made the proposal to suggest worthwhile places to reinvest the funds currently supporting fossil fuel development and use. 

The students continue to work, though, by participating in the socially responsible investing committee, by widening their focus from divestment to broader, related social justice issues, by introducing community organizing principles, and by drawing upon the strong call from the Jesuit superior general never to rest content with social injustice.

Related: "Georgetown committee opts against endorsing full fossil fuel divestment"

The next speakers, Paul Benson and George Hanley, came from the Marianist-founded University of Dayton, in Ohio, which in June became the first U.S. Catholic university to divest. Benson is the university’s acting provost, while Hanley, a board member who voted for divestment, is active in investment roles oriented toward educational and environmental solutions.

They began by urging the Seattle students to persevere, quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu as saying, “We need an apartheid-style boycott to save the planet. ... It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future.”

Among factors favoring efforts to get Catholic universities to divest from fossil fuels, they pointed out that universities as universities believe in and understand climate science. In addition, climate action aligns with Catholic social teaching and Pope Francis is calling for it. Catholic university mission statements are often strong on social ethics, and Catholic screens for investments now exist and are commonly used.

They listed a number of important lessons learned at Dayton that could benefit other universities willing to address the issue:

  • Be ready for roadblocks, in the form of misperceptions, a great deal of inertia, and powerful vested interests to overcome.
  • Clearly define initial divestment targets, such as lists of the worst polluters, set realistic goals and a realistic timetable for phasing out investments, and demonstrate that fossil fuel divestment and clean energy reinvestment need not mean financial losses.
  • Consider stranded asset risk -- how risky are fossil fuel investments, given growing ecological consciousness and destructive climate patterns, in the long run?
  • Be wary of shareholder advocacy as the panacea, an approach that has had no significant success in this arena.
  • Keep the end game in mind: reducing the outsized influence of corporations.
  • Above all, keep mission integrity in the forefront. There is no stronger argument than fidelity to your Catholic mission, which embraces the core principles of Catholic social teaching and must shape all sustainability plans and guide your students’ and community’s future interests.

They emphasized that too often universities overlook the powerful educational mission that carefully planned and communicated divestment/reinvestment activities fulfill.  These actions call attention to important issues of planetary climate change, of course, but they also offer a strong example of institutional faithfulness to religious identity in the use of all resources. 

That can lead to deeper student understanding of core values and mission and the ethical responsibility of investors; highlight the relevance of sustainability education across academic disciplines; and kindle ethical hope that climate change isn’t and overwhelming and intractable issue.

The reverse side of this coin is disturbing and hypocritical, where students today learn about global crises facing the human community -- and the global responsibility to do something about them -- yet watch their universities invest their financial weight in the most destructive and irresponsible things.

Hanley and Benson noted that faculty and student recruitment at Dayton have both benefited in measurable ways from the university’s actions on fossil fuels. They seemed delighted, in puckish good humor, to leave the audience with a provocative question:  “Are the Marianists really that much more intelligent and committed than the Jesuits?”

The final panelist of the morning was John Sealey, provincial assistant for social justice and international ministries for the Midwest Jesuits, who reported on the Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility (JCIR), a working group guiding U.S. and Canadian Jesuits since 1974.

While JCIR-led advocacy can point to successes in areas of human rights and water sustainability, as yet there has been little success in addressing fossil fuel companies on their roles in the climate change crisis.

A new draft paper under JCIR auspices looks to encourage Jesuit-sponsored institutions and provinces to acknowledge the significant role fossil fuels play in climate change and discern their appropriate mission-guided ethical responses. Sealey suggested three different strategies that Jesuit and other investors might conceivably choose:

  • A more robust commitment to shareholder engagement by some of those already engaged;
  • Divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in alternative clean energy sources for others, and/or;
  • Investment in alternative clean energy sources by many.

“Our witness will be stronger,” Sealey concluded, “working together than allowing ourselves to be divided on a tactical point.”

Indeed, in my judgment, these three strategies could be coordinated as a stronger, more complex joint strategy, by Jesuit-sponsored institutions and provinces in the U.S. and Canada -- and possibly in collaboration with other Catholic institutions and religious communities. Divestment commitments, student and faculty movements on the campuses, and increasing alternative investments all represent strong and important messages that those engaging in shareholder dialogues can bring to boardroom tables. 

In my next report on this conference, I will describe the issues of ethics, policy and motivation raised in three afternoon panels and describe the concrete action steps that emerged on the final day of the gathering.

[Jesuit Fr. James Hug, former president of the D.C.-based, social justice-focused Center for Concern, attended the Loyola Chicago Climate Change Conference (March 19-21) and has filed reports for NCRonline.org and the Ignatian Solidarity Network.]

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