Students Hold “Divest Week of Action”
Issue   |   Wed, 10/19/2016 - 00:06

Divest Amherst, a student-run advocacy group, organized “Divest Week of Action” from Oct. 11 to Oct. 15 to promote campus-wide support for divestment from fossil fuels.

The group, which has repeatedly called for the college’s board of trustees to divest all of its holdings from fossil fuels, organized several events to engage the student body and put public pressure on the board, which invests $110 million of the college’s $2.2 billion endowment in fossil fuel companies. Students in Divest Amherst met with the board’s chief financial officer and the head of its investment committee on Thursday, Oct. 13, according to Divest Amherst member Kelly Missett ’19.

The group publicized the week’s events by tabling, writing chalk statements around campus and putting up Post-It notes in the entrance to Valentine Hall. A collaborative art installation was set up on Thursday in Valentine quad to which students passing by could contribute. A screening of “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change,” a climate change documentary, took place in Keefe Campus Center on Thursday night.

Divest Amherst ended the week with a rally to promote divestment on Friday evening, during which speakers spoke about the effects of the drought in Massachusetts, the moral necessity to address climate change and the significance of the controversial Dakota Access pipeline in relation to the college’s investments.

“The Amherst campus, especially, is kind of sheltered from what’s happening in the rest of the world,” Brian Beaty ’17, another member of Divest Amherst, said. “We have the drought, but obviously our lives didn’t really stop with the drought — and there are also so many students here whose families back home are being affected by climate change.”

Divestment is also a human rights issue because the effects of climate change will not be equally distributed across the world, said Missett.

“Patterns of irregular and extreme weather such as drought will impact the global South, especially Africa, and those are the countries that are often the least wealthy and the least able to cope with climate change,” she said, adding that they are also the countries that have contributed the least to climate change.

Students in Divest Amherst believe that funding fossil fuel extraction and fossil fuel companies amounts to profiting from activities that “directly impact people in an unjust way,” Missett said.

The board of trustees, however, has repeatedly denied the group’s requests to divest.

“The Board and the Divest Amherst movement are in agreement on the threat posed by climate change,” said Cullen Murphy ’74, the board’s chair, in an email interview. “We differ on how we apply this shared perspective to managing the endowment.”

In the last years, the board has committed to maintaining a framework of considering long-term risks in analyses of “companies, cash flows, world events and other factors,” said Murphy.

“We believe this approach of inquiry and analysis is more effective and more consistent with Amherst’s values than divestment,” he said.

Murphy added that the college is financially supporting projects and initiatives related to sustainability, including efforts to be carbon-neutral, sending students to the Paris climate change conference in December 2015 and internships and research into environmental studies and climate change.

“An Amherst that is strong financially is the best way we can work together as a community to combat climate change,” he said.

Despite the outcome of Thursday’s meeting, Missett is positive about the direction of the board’s relationship with Divest Amherst. The group plans to identify concerns with investing in specific companies and present those concerns to the board of trustees.

“We’ll have stronger evidence for why we should divest and a better system for how the board can take small steps over time to divest,” Missett said.

Beaty and Missett commended the board for its commitment to on-campus sustainability efforts as well as its continued interest in remaining transparent with the student group. Still, Divest Amherst continues to campaign for complete divestment. Beaty said that last Thursday’s meeting with the board’s investment committee confirmed that the board is not open to divestment on any level.

If the college removes its endowment from fossil companies, it won’t take down the industry, Missett said, but added that it may begin a social movement that supports widespread divestment. Once institutions begin to divest in large numbers, she said, “it’s sort of a way of saying, ‘We don’t agree with you, we don’t want to be a part of you.’”

Though a common sentiment is that the effects of climate change are distant and far removed, Missett said that they are already apparent.

“It’s affecting people now, it’s affecting people in the United States, in Alaska, in low-lying areas such as the Louisiana Bayou and Miami,” she said. “These areas are experiencing rising sea levels, a loss of permafrost, extreme heat and extreme flooding — it’s affecting our generation right now.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited Cullen Murphy as saying that the College needs profits gained from investment in the fossil fuel industry. This was a misparahrasing of a quote and those were not Cullen Murphy’s words. This article was last updated on Thursday, Oct. 20.