story | Lucy Davis and Ng Qi Siang on behalf of Yale-NUS Divest, Guest Contributors
photo | Yale-NUS Divest
We write as members of Yale-NUS College concerned about the threat of climate change and passionate about our institution’s capacity to be a positive force for change. Recently, it has come to light that part of our college’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels. A student-led movement called Yale-NUS Divest has emerged in response, calling on the college to act with a conscience and divest. Fossil fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet, which is why we are calling on Yale-NUS to divest from an industry known for denying climate science and destroying the livelihoods of indigenous communities. Divestment is simply the opposite of investment—it means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally objectionable. Divestment is not new; it has been done with great success in past campaigns against apartheid, tobacco and private prisons. Fossil fuel divestment has been undertaken by organizations as diverse as the World Council of Churches and Yale University.
The Yale-NUS Divest movement has been working actively to find out more about the endowment’s management and its exposure to fossil fuels. Meetings and e-mail exchanges with the administration have provided some information: our $365 million endowment is managed by the National University of Singapore (NUS) Investment Committee, where Yale-NUS’s president sits as an observer. Earlier this year, the administration confirmed that part of our endowment is indeed invested in oil and gas, though they did not provide a precise estimate. Making such estimates is challenging as the external fund managers hired by the NUS Investment Committee invest our endowment in a diverse range of commodities, bonds and other assets, the full extent of which is kept from administrators in order to guard against conflicts of interest. Importantly, the college already has an ethical framework for accepting gifts and donations—administrators recounted to the campaign several instances where donations from unethical sources were refused. Divesting thus requires extending this existing ethical framework to the college’s investments, and establishing the fossil fuel industry as in contravention to our ethics.
The ethics of fossil fuel divestment are clear: an institution dedicated to preparing students for the future should not be simultaneously investing in enterprises that poison that future. Climate change is as much an ethical issue as it is a political or financial one, with negative impacts that disproportionately affect minorities, the poor, and future generations. We are destroying the very ecosystems that our descendants will rely on to survive. Currently, international negotiations and scientific consensus point to limiting global warming to 1.5°C to avoid catastrophic effects. This allows us to emit only 353 gigatons of carbon dioxide (CO2), but the fossil fuel industry possesses within its reserves—right now, ready to extract and emit—around 942 gigatons of CO2 contained in coal, oil and natural gas. If this carbon is emitted—and the fossil fuel industry has every business incentive to do just that—we are almost certainly looking at catastrophic effects for humans and ecosystems around the world.
Something has to give, and it almost certainly will not be the laws of nature. Movements around the world have recognized this and acted to pressure the fossil fuel industry through a wide range of tactics, including divestment. Divestment is powerful precisely because it rejects the veneer of legitimacy accorded to the fossil fuel industry, and calls on institutions across a variety of domains—churches, universities, sovereign wealth funds, and even cities—to reject a business model that would endanger our collective future. Such a precedent should also start in Singapore. Currently, the oil and gas industries invest considerable resources in purchasing political clout and social license here: ExxonMobil continues to sponsor the annual ExxonMobil Campus Concerts at NUS, while Singapore proudly announces that it is the “undisputed oil hub of Asia”. By divesting, Yale-NUS is sending a signal that this sort of influence is not welcome here. This could start a wider conversation in Singapore, with other institutions potentially following suit and students across campuses being empowered to act on climate change.
Moreover, there are also compelling financial reasons to divest, and the college’s financial future need not be threatened by divestment. Stranded oil assets and increasing awareness of climate change mean that fossil fuel stocks are overvalued, since stock prices do not currently reflect the true ecological or human costs of emissions. Furthermore, impending restrictions on the ability of fossil fuel companies to draw on their oil reserves in light of international climate negotiations and rapidly growing “keep-it-in-the-ground” efforts in local communities will undeniably threaten the profitability of fossil fuel assets in future. If we are truly concerned with the financial future of the college, we should be moving actively towards an investment portfolio free of fossil fuels, many of which have shown they can also be very profitable. In short, Big Oil is bad business.
We came to Yale-NUS with a vision to create a radically different kind of college, ready to boldly face the future. Our goal to be “in Asia, for the world” exhorts us to be concerned for the wellbeing of the world around us, as does much of our education in the Common Curriculum. We are therefore concerned that our college, with its aspirational vision, is investing its endowment in an industry that is actively undermining the future we will inhabit. Instead, we call upon our college to exercise moral leadership and live up to its institutional values by fully divesting its endowment from fossil fuels. This is not an impossible ask: our conversations with administrators so far indicate some willingness to incorporate ethical considerations in the management of our College’s endowment. However, making divestment a reality will require a substantial shift from the status quo. Across the world, communities are mobilizing and building power in order to compel their institutions to act in an ethical manner . It is up to us, as members of the Yale-NUS community, to push our college to take a moral stand on the right side of history.
To this end, the Yale-NUS Divest movement has organized a Week of Actions (April 3-7) and released a petition, calling for a freeze on all investment in fossil fuel companies and a move towards full divestment within the next five years. It also calls for the administration to release a statement by May 5, affirming its commitment to sustainability and ethical management of our investments and institutional partnerships. We encourage all Yale-NUS students, faculty and community members to sign it. We hope this will be the beginning of a transparent effort from the administration to make fossil fuel divestment at Yale-NUS a reality.
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