Letter to the Editor: Divestment from Fossil Fuels
Issue   |   Wed, 10/29/2014 - 00:34

This letter was sent by 22 senior professors to President Biddy Martin and Cullen Murphy ‘74, the chair of the Board of Trustees, urging the college to divest from fossil fuels.

Dear Biddy and Cullen,

We write to urge you, and the Board of Trustees, to move toward divesting the college of holdings in those corporations that are committed to fossil fuel extraction to the exclusion of making serious investments in renewable energy.

We are long past the point of debating the implications of our addiction to fossil fuels. The plain fact of the matter is that we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuel dependence if we are to mitigate future challenges that are as unprecedented as they are daunting. Every economist and scientist who has studied this objectively, including our own Joseph Stiglitz and David Suzuki, has concluded that the costs in the present of shifting our economy to renewable sources of energy are far lower than the costs we will incur in continuing with business as usual. As educators, we owe it to our students to do what we can to make sure that their future will not be diminished by our reluctance to act.

We understand that, in the ordinary course of events, the Board’s policy of treating the college’s portfolio as driven by the fiduciary obligation to insure the college’s future is paramount. But there are times, hopefully few, when fiduciary responsibility has to be tempered by other sorts of responsibilities. The college has a longstanding policy of not investing in companies that produce and market alcohol and tobacco. In the 1980s, after much protest and vigorous discussion befitting an institution committed to serious intellectual inquiry, the college decided to divest of holdings in corporations doing business with and in South Africa and, even more recently, in Sudan. In each case, the trustees decided to forego the potential rewards that these investments promised because the rewards contradicted the values that the college upholds.

We acknowledge and applaud all that the college has done, and is committed to doing, to reduce our contribution to carbon emissions, and we are especially pleased that the college has created an Office of Sustainability that will make it a model of energy conservation, smart resource use and recycling. That response to the contemporary situation, however, is simply not enough. Assuring that our daily operations are sustainable is very important, but even if we were wildly successful, our impact would be a drop in the bucket. More importantly, we would have virtually no effect on the boardrooms of the fossil fuel industry. The industry has made it clear that it intends to mine the last lump of coal and the last drop of oil and natural gas. It is hard to imagine a more socially irresponsible stance. Thus we need to add Amherst’s voice to the growing ranks of colleges, universities, churches, cities, labor unions and foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, in calling for a turn away from dependence on fossil fuels and a transition to a sustainable energy model.

More than climate change is at stake in our investments in the fossil fuel industry. Key players in the industry, Exxon-Mobil, BP and Koch Industries, among others, have lavishly funded ersatz “think tanks” with impressive sounding names and self-appointed “experts” whose only purpose is to spread a blanket of false information about the relationship between carbon and climate and to attack legitimate climate scientists to the point of libel. With few exceptions, the industry has shown utter and unrepentant contempt for the core values of Amherst College and the intellectual principles we hold dear. We proudly proclaim terras irradient; the fossil fuel industry and its faux experts and institutes stand behind terras ignorent.

Moreover, to compound matters these same corporations have launched a campaign to discredit renewable energy. The Heartland Institute, largely a creature of Koch Industries, is promoting the totally fabricated claim that wind turbines contribute to a long list of maladies, from autism to ADHD. There is no scientific basis for such claims but by repeating them under the masthead of a legitimate-sounding “institute,” it hopes to ignite opposition to renewable energy. It cannot serve our students or our commitment to intellectual honesty to remain associated with an industry that, to be blunt, lies to the public, especially as it does so in the name of science.

Finally, using its deep pockets, the fossil fuel industry has done all it can to subvert the democratic process. Lobbying to stall or derail legislative efforts to curb carbon emissions, supporting climate deniers in Congress and funding legal challenges to efforts by states and by the federal government to curb carbon emissions, the fossil fuel industry has thwarted the desires of many citizens to address climate change.

Given all of this, we find it difficult to accept that fiduciary responsibility trumps the imperative to make clear that the fossil fuel industry imperils our students’ future and mocks our commitment to scientific inquiry and intellectual responsibility. We urge you to chart a path for an orderly divestment of our holdings in the fossil fuel industry. We have considered the different approaches to divestment in fossil fuels that colleges and universities are taking and would be happy to discuss this when the trustees are on campus in January. We hope that the agenda for that meeting will accommodate a discussion with the Board.


Jan Dizard
Joe Moore
Amrita Basu
Martha Saxton
Jerry Himmelstein
Lisa Brooks
Pavel Machala
Ethan Temeles
Anna Martini
Kristin Bumiller
David Delaney
Chris Dole
Martha Umphrey
Frank Couvares
Michele Barale
Deborah Gewertz
Rick Griffiths
Karen Sanchez-Eppler
Ron Lembo
Leah Schmalzbauer
Robert Hayashi
Judy Frank

Michael Rosen '79 (not verified) says:
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 11:01

With the advent of Citizen's United, it's more imperative than ever that Amherst as a leading institute of higher education, stand up for science, future generations and the well-being of our planet by divesting. It is precisely because of institutions like Amherst that scientists have the tools and knowledge to anticipate climate change and figure out ways to avoid this serious threat. Let's stand up against these insidious forces in our society by doing the right thing now.

Joseph Bast (not verified) says:
Sun, 11/09/2014 - 14:25

The references to The Heartland Institute in this letter are entirely false. The Heartland Institute is a 30-year-old nonprofit institution that was started without funding or advice from “Koch Industries” or any individuals or other organizations affiliated with that company. There is nothing “ersatz” about us: We have more than 5,000 donors, 30 full-time staff, more than 260 academics participate in our peer-review, and nearly 8 out of 10 state legislators say they read and value our publications.

We have received a mere $25,000 in the last 15 years from individuals or organizations affiliated with the Koch family, and that gift was for our work on health care reform. We’ve received no funding at all from ExxonMobil or BP since 2007, before we became prominent in the climate change debate, and before that their funding amounted to less than 5% of our annual budgets.

Our positions on climate change and alternative energy obviously diverge from those of the letter’s authors, but are well within the bounds of respected scientific opinion. Just one proof of that is that our series of scientific reports on climate science has been cited more than 100 times in peer-reviewed science journals.

The claim that Heartland was or is being paid to lie about climate science or alternative energy is false, malicious, and defamatory. We are contacting President Martin and Chairman Murphy to inform them that this letter is inaccurate and should be disregarded. We hope the rest of the Amherst community will look beyond this unfortunate abuse of their trust and devote their attention to the underlying issues involving science and economics.

Joseph Bast
The Heartland Institute

John (not verified) says:
Mon, 11/17/2014 - 15:02

Man. I am glad I did not go to Amherst if this is the trash their faculty produce.

Dr. James H. Rust (not verified) says:
Mon, 11/17/2014 - 16:16

I am a large donor to the College of Engineering of Purdue University and plan to continue this activity as long as I live. A letter will be sent to the Purdue University endowment that explains my relationship with them will cease if they ever pursue a policy of divesting in assets from companies that develop fossil fuel resources.
The purpose of endowments for educational institutions is to provide further sources of funds to provide education objectives. These investments should not be subject to restrictions due to whims of current political thought.
Energy companies are money makers and endowments show results proving this thesis. Many energy companies pay dividends that are far greater than interest on government bonds. On top of this they have provided appreciable capital gains over past decades.
It is laughable if those advocating dumping energy stocks want the cash produced from these sales invested in renewable energy stocks. Would they have recommended KiOR whose IPO stock price was $15 a share three years ago and after its recent bankruptcy sells for less than 1 cent per share. Would they have recommended Solyndra that went bankrupt a few years ago? I can't think of a single renewable energy stock that ever paid a dividend. There are some stocks with great appreciation like Tesla. Have any of them ever shown a profit for a quarter?
Educational institutions that follow divestiture recommendations of anti-fossil fuel zealots are just as stupid as these groups and deserve no further support. Their sole objective is to make money honestly.
This reminds me decades ago children who would not obey parent's demands would say, "I'm going to hold my breath until I die!" Parents would either walk away without comment or say, "Go ahead." and then walk away. Children behave in the same manner today with different results.
Many modern parents reply to misbehaving children, "Oh honey, please don't hold your breath and die. What can I do to make you stop?" I have always thought divestiture advocates were raised by these modern-day thinking parents and ended up with no common sense.
James H. Rust, Professor of nuclear engineering