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  • Writer's pictureClaire Schweitzer & Jai Qureshi

Fueling the Future

Climate activists and academics on Columbia’s long-awaited divestment from fossil fuels.

By Claire Schweitzer and Jai Qureshi

On January 29, Columbia announced the completion of its divestment from oil and gas companies and the formalization of “this policy of non-investment for the foreseeable future.” The decision came on the heels of several other climate-focused initiatives and was undoubtedly the result of long years of heated protest, dialogue, and deliberation among multiple committed parties on campus. Unsurprisingly, the announcement has inspired a wide range of responses, from admiration to hope, cynicism to outrage.

Mixed Reactions

Some believe the move indicates that Columbia is on the right path toward a more sustainable future, though there remains significant work to be done. Professor Sandra Goldmark, Director of Campus Sustainability and Climate Action at Barnard, said she appreciates that Columbia is taking “a thoughtful approach” and believes “it’s an important move for the University.”

Goldmark explained that the process leading to divestment involved extensive collaboration between various groups and experts in the University. “That is one of the key elements to our approach at Barnard, not just to investment or divestment but to all of our climate action work,” she said. “It really is across departments, across offices, across administrative structures.” But divestment is only a step in the broader course of necessary climate decisions, she continued: “For me, it’s really important to understand investment decisions as part of the larger whole.”

Still, for organizers who have spent years pushing Columbia to divest from fossil fuel companies, this announcement was nothing short of a victory. Savannah Pearson of Columbia Extinction Rebellion (XR), the organization that submitted the original proposal for the University “to engage in an orderly divestment of the shares of all fossil fuel companies” to the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI), shared her thoughts after the decision: “We were excited to hear the announcement, because we have been waiting since we submitted the proposal in February of last year, so it took almost a year for the ACSRI to come out with their recommendation and then for the trustees to vote on the recommendation.” Twelve long months later, their efforts have come to fruition.

Illustration by Samia Menon

Despite these positive reactions, there remains some cause for concern. Columbia’s divestment applies only to its direct investments, meaning that the University can remain indirectly invested in fossil fuels. According to Professor Michael Gerrard of Columbia Law School, indirect investments “are investments in funds that are managed by independent companies, and these funds are held by very large numbers of investors, so Columbia doesn’t have control over the management of these funds.” Attenuating blame by burying investments in funds that have no climate commitments does little to address what organizers have called for: that no University dollars—directly or indirectly—support businesses modeled on, as ACSRI’s recommendation reads, the “exploration for, extraction, or production of fossil fuels.”

Furthermore, the divestment strategy allows the University to continue investing in fossil fuel companies with a “credible plan” to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Is this merely a way to avoid full divestment, permitting the University to invest in fossil fuel companies when it desires based on vague promises of reform? Or, does it evidence Columbia’s commitment to reform even when that means conducting complex, continued assessments of company plans?

Some have come out staunchly in favor of this decision, claiming that it indicates the University’s nuanced and multi-pronged approach to combating climate change. “Opening the door to investments to companies with really credible net zero plans is an incentive, and I think it’s an important one,” Goldmark said. “It’s the way to really not just divest but actually incentivize the kind of behavior we want to see from these companies.”

Professor Jason Smerdon, the Co-Director of the Undergraduate Program in Sustainable Development at Columbia, admitted that carving out certain companies from the divestment plan was an unusual decision for a university to make. However, he echoed Goldmark’s sentiments, commenting that “fossil fuel companies aren’t going anywhere, and actually are companies that may ultimately require partnerships as we think about ways that we decarbonize our economy. ”

He predicted that the challenge will be assessing “whether these companies are legitimately working toward carbon neutral goals,” assessments that will involve Climate School faculty and other experts around the University along with the investment committee. While he believes that it would be better to set an earlier target date for these companies to achieve complete carbon neutrality than 2050, from a market viewpoint this is considered reasonable.

Others have raised concerns about the fact that no criteria for determining whether companies meet the standards for “credible plans” have been released to the public. Such ambiguity makes those who have fought for this divestment “a little nervous about the idea that [Columbia is] considering the possibility they could reinvest in some of these companies,” according to Michael Cusack of Extinction Rebellion.

Although these exceptions are intended to incentivize companies to move in a greener direction, Pearson admitted that “as a group, we would have preferred more of a blanket statement just condemning the industry as a whole, for all of the human rights violations and environmental injustice violations that they have committed over such a long period of time. That probably would have rang out a little bit stronger.”

Time Passes

Students have been organizing for divestment for years. Why make this historic decision now? Some advocates are questioning the other factors that might have led the University to divest at this time, and not a decade ago—or a decade from now.

To start with, the recent national social justice movements against anti-Black racism, prisons, and police have put heightened scrutiny on Columbia’s ethical stances, and community members are increasingly aware of climate change’s disproportionate impact on marginalized communities. John George, a Sustainability Management Master’s student at Columbia who is also employed at an asset management firm in a role focusing on environmental, social, and governance issues, suggested that the events that transpired in 2020 were likely why the University committed to this policy change.

He cited the stresses of the pandemic, the exposure of racial injustice, and the volatility of the oil markets as having forced “people to take stock of what’s actually going on.” But he also noted that President Bollinger formed the task force to consider divestment in January 2020, indicating that it was not these phenomena that inspired the University to consider divestment in the first place, even if they impacted the final decision.

An anonymous member of the Columbia Sustainable Finance Professionals’ Network also stated, “From the perspective of the university, the investment committee is not going to do anything that it thinks will certainly harm the return profile of the portfolio,” They explained that, in the past, CIOs have hesitated to divest from fossil fuels for fear it would hurt “the diversification of their portfolios.”

According to them, the “diversification cost” of removing oil and gas stocks from investment portfolios is no longer significant. They attribute this to the steep drop this last year has seen in these companies’ market capitalization, as markets now often “discount the risk of a transition to a lower carbon economy” and as it becomes clear that “fossil fuel use might be peaking out sooner than people previously expected.” Ultimately, they said, “I think it’s become easier to take them out of your portfolio when they’re no longer a big component of the investment universe.”

Indeed, they were skeptical that campus pressure “was really a driving force of what they’re doing.” They told us, “In terms of just the market power of the University, the power of their brand, I think that they’re in a very strong position, and I don’t think that they would have [to] necessarily yield to student pressure on one or two issues as long as they’re continuing to provide world-class education, which is what people come there for.”

They explained that the University is in a different position from a company that sells consumer products, for instance, which might bend to the pressures of a consumer base with control over demand. Only if prospective Columbia applicants would be willing to choose other schools because of the contents of Columbia’s investment portfolio would the administration feel analogous pressure, the source contended. In the bottom-line model of University decision-making, then, the current volatility of fossil fuels investments seems a far more likely driving force than the protestations of matriculated students unable to take their business elsewhere.

George reminded us that while “ideally,” Columbia would have divested years ago, it is more productive to investigate whether the University has and is meeting measurable targets on the road to carbon neutrality by 2050 than to dwell on past inaction. “You can’t change the past,” he stated, “but you can direct your capital, you can direct your resources to the future.” From the perspective of asset management, he expressed that earlier action is better, “but if [companies] are deciding today, tomorrow, a month from now to commit themselves to going carbon neutral and incorporating these risks, that’s a positive.”

Others believe it makes sense that the University has come out with this policy now as part of their larger recent pattern of significant climate action commitments, most notably the creation of the Climate School last year.

Goldmark stated that she does not believe divestment is merely a strategy to gain popularity, “because it’s backed up by real actions. If it was just a statement about it, that would be one thing—but if it comes with real changes in investment decisions, then I’ll take it as intended, as a part of the commitment.”

Smerdon also commented that “this decision should have been—and probably could have been—made earlier,” but also that it “fits within a much larger, sincere, earnest commitment from the University to address the climate crisis.” He explained that this move was the next logical step after the 2017 decision to divest from thermal coal. It also dovetails with the University’s broader climate change commitments, including ongoing efforts to appoint a climate officer in the Office of the President, the founding of the Climate School, and the work of the Office of Environmental Stewardship to establish a sustainability plan for the University and set benchmarks to reach their goals.

The University has also received recognition as a sustainability innovator in various other arenas. Notably, it has been praised for its transportation programming, with an electric bus fleet and incentives for sustainability-minded commuters who participate in rideshare programs. However, Smerdon attributed some of the University’s success to its location in New York City, which, to some extent, mitigates sustainability issues in particular areas, like transportation.

Though market forces and a broader recent program of climate action have likely played a role in the timing of the decision, the administration has also recently faced redoubled pressure from students to divest. According to the co-chair of the Columbia branch of Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), Emmaline Bennett, it appears that it was “no coincidence that they released the decision on the first day of the tuition strike.” Following years of Columbia activism from other groups, it appears that this announcement sought to resolve one of YDSA’s urgent demands at a pivotal moment in the ongoing strike.

To Be Continued ...

The significance of the divestment decision has not made advocates complacent about the University’s need for continual climate-oriented progress. Goldmark acknowledged that Barnard, Columbia—indeed, most organizations in the world—“need to do more, in almost every area.”

Much of Columbia’s response to climate change has been centered around research and education. According to Gerrard, “Columbia’s climate policy has many elements, the two most important are education and research, and we have long had many educational programs on climate change.” Columbia boasts many courses, initiatives, research institutes, and schools that have been and continue to be focused on the key issues facing the planet. The Earth Institute and its associated centers, including the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, carry out robust research efforts, and the University offers undergraduate and graduate students access to sustainable development and climate-related classes across numerous disciplines. Hopefully, these programs and initiatives will only expand with the creation of the Climate School.

In her involvement with the development of the Climate School, Goldmark plans, in the coming years, to focus on how the University can continue “weaving together the educational and the operational commitments” it has made. She is also excited for Barnard’s newest Climate initiative, Circular Campus, launching this spring, which will examine Barnard’s Scope 3 emissions (emissions indirectly produced by an institution—for example,through employee commuting or waste disposal). The Circular Camps will use principles of a circular economy to concretely reduce waste and emissions while supporting student access to necessary resources. She explained that this is part of Barnard’s overarching philosophy to focus on the intersection between environment and social issues and to find solutions that are intersectional, as well.

While research and education are essential, Pearson, like Goldmark, emphasized that these must take place concurrently “with substantial policies and decarbonization on campus.” To be a leader in the climate movement, Columbia needs to not only continue and improve its research and education, but also move to actually change its unsustainable practices.

Smerdon also pointed out that the next steps for the University will include a greater focus on climate and environmental justice, in addition to research into the connection between climate change and socio-economics. Moreover, he believes that there will be greater efforts to combat Columbia’s own climate footprint, including fulfillment of the express commitments that President Bollinger has already made to carbon neutrality. He explained that achieving this milestone will involve significant changes to the energy sources and built environment of our campuses.

John George shared his hopes that the University will maintain a greater dialogue with the companies in its portfolios in order to hold them accountable for their corporate practices. He explained that with regard to companies who might be underperforming from an ESG perspective, Columbia has “the opportunity, by investing in those companies, to make their voice heard, because they do have the option to proxy vote, they do have the opportunity to engage with company management.” He also reasoned that an innovative, exciting next step for the University would be to fully divest from all companies that are heavily indirectly involved with fossil fuels, particularly those not working to decarbonize.

Goldmark also believes student activism will continue to be a crucial part of the climate-action equation because it shows that something “is a priority to the student body, and student priorities matter to the administration.” However, she acknowledged, “sometimes I feel like there is a sort of us vs. them feeling between students and administration, which I actually think is not constructive and not necessary.” She expressed that “I believe we can work from a place of trust, and a belief that both students and administrators are committed to climate action."

Student activists emphasized the need to pursue collaboration instead of conflict. With this in mind, some want the University to implement formal channels by which students and Morningside Heights community members can submit input regarding Columbia’s climate change policy. Emmaline Bennett, co-chair of the Columbia Youth Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), stated that the group will be looking for the creation of “actual mechanisms for students to be able to have a say in investments.”

At the moment, referendums are non-binding, student input is non-binding, and even recommendations from existing mechanisms like the ACSRI are non-binding. Therefore, according to Bennett, YDSA’s “demand is about actually creating binding democratic mechanisms that the student body as a whole can sort of use to say, ‘Board of Trustees, we’re not going to invest in this,’” and ensure that process is “much more democratic and formalized.” With a more open and official process, students, faculty, staff, and our Morningside neighbors (who all stand to be impacted by the University’s climate policies) could have a more direct say in building Columbia’s sustainability initiatives.

A Change in Mindset

Stakeholders were also eager to share their thoughts about how we all must reform our personal conceptions of effective climate action beyond institutional initiatives. Smerdon stated, “One of the things that’s important is just how climate change will impact each one of us. I think there’s often the impression that this is a problem that affects somebody else in some other part of the world, and that these impacts are going to be felt there, but not here. I think that there’s still disconnect between people’s understanding of these global impacts and what it means for our risks on the ground.”

George explained that he wants students to develop a greater understanding of the profound role of Wall Street and large corporations in driving climate change, and their corresponding responsibility to start “righting this ship and mitigating the issues associated with climate change.”

Goldmark explained, “What’s so frustrating about climate action is we have the information now” and yet change still seems to stall, both at the individual and institutional levels. Indeed, progress requires “broad commitment from basically everybody in the community, which is a tall order.”

When asked about how individuals and institutions can take climate action that feels impactful, Goldmark shared three key strategies. The first is to “just start—just take that small initial step because it’s important to get started.” The second is to understand the connection between your individual role and the bigger picture. From there, you can use your platform to scale outwards to work with and mobilize the people around you. And the third is to encourage people to take ownership of certain goals and missions within the contexts of the places they work. For instance, one might ask, “If I work in an engineering department, what are some specific goals that my expertise can contribute to? How can my field be involved in institutional decision making?”

Whether the best tactic is to focus on changing our individual climate-related acts or on enacting transformations at institutional levels remains the subject of a heated debate in the climate community. Smerdon acknowledged that “we often personalize this in terms of what we individually should be doing, and you’ll see a lot of discussions about our individual carbon footprints.” However, he explained that the collective emissions of large countries—compounding the contributions of citizens, institutions, and corporations therein—dwarf the emissions of individual people. Although action on the atomic level remains important, tackling emissions from the top down is a valuable approach.

Smerdon specifically mentioned the emissions of large corporations, including “some top 100 companies,” in which he located “the root of the problems.” With these large, powerful actors in mind, he went on to assert that there remains “a disconnect between the sense that it comes down to individual actions in terms of how we consume, as opposed to actions that we need to engage in as citizens on a much larger systemic level to promote systemic change.”

Goldmark advocates for a more blended approach between individual and systemic action: “I think there’s a big dichotomy in the sustainability, climate action world between individual actions and focusing on policy and focusing on the big picture or systemic change. I think the two go hand in hand.” According to Goldmark, we must simultaneously “focus on the big companies and the big institutions and the big top down climate policies” and reflect upon “our own lives, our own households, our own departments.” These changes, big and small, are all “part and parcel of the larger movement.”

George agreed that we must pursue individual and institutional change, but focused specifically on the role of consumers, producers, and financiers in encouraging companies to alter their environmentally damaging practices. He suggested that we focus on “those bad actors at the top” that are posing the greatest risks to our environment and “not understanding the impacts of their operations.” He placed much of the responsibility specifically on the financial industry, because “Wall Street invests in all of these companies.” He continued, “I think it is absolutely crucial for where the money is, they need to be the ones that say, ‘these practices need to change.’”

The transformations taking place at Columbia may seem small, but the weight of this institution’s investments and climate responses remain significant. Benett underscored that “Columbia is a very wealthy institution and its investments have a material effect on industries. That 11 billion dollars is bigger than the GDP of a lot of countries.” These investments do have the power to make a lasting impact on the climate, so the decision to divest, indeed, signifies a move towards material change.

Many might still ask: Should we be optimistic or pessimistic about the University’s efforts and the climate crisis in general? According to Smerdon, that is not the material question. He explained that if a ship is sinking, you don’t ask if the captain is optimistic about the prospects—you ask how you can help keep the ship from going down. “We all just have to be working like crazy to address this challenge that we’re confronted with, and the amount we do will really dictate how the story is written.” For Smerdon, “It’s not a question of optimism or pessimism or hope or otherwise, it’s a question of how many of us are going to get to work and really find a way to solve this.”


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