Divestment Crucial for NYU’s Global Sustainability

No institution is more important than its dependency upon the Earth's health. NYU must divest its endowments from the fossil fuel industry because that ...

Apr 26, 2014

No institution is more important than its dependency upon the Earth's health.
NYU must divest its endowments from the fossil fuel industry because that industry, by its very nature, is the key driver of global climate change. The consequences of climate change include intensifying storms like Sandy, expanding droughts, disease and pest irruptions, ocean acidification and mass extinction that affect everyone, everywhere.
NYU and its Global Network should be a leader in the growing fossil fuel divestment movement. It should innovate ways to reinvest our endowment in entities that promote the integrity of our own mission by fostering the integrity of Earth’s interdependent community of air, rock, water, soils, animals and people.
NYU's fiduciary responsibility to that mission is tied to its responsibility to advance sustainability — that is, to help foster a healthy Earth. NYU commendably has reduced greenhouse gas emissions in our facilities, but that is not enough. People worldwide cannot keep burning fossil fuels and have an Earth healthy enough to support humanity and all of our best desires, including NYU’s educational and research mission. But the fossil fuel industry will not stop without pressure. Quite the contrary: In 2013 it collectively spent $650 billion exploring for more oil, coal and gas to add to its already proven reserves. If burned, these additions would push average global temperatures so high as to make civilization as we have known it, and the survival of an increasing host of species, untenable.
For NYU, fossil fuel divestment is part of a unique complex, because our institution is increasingly far-reaching, with campuses in New York as well as Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Berlin, Accra, Prague, Paris, Madrid, London, Florence, Buenos Aires and other cities across the globe. We therefore also have a particular opportunity for widespread influence. This will take additional courage and innovation. We must put on the table not only our endowment but also our direct physical and financial interdependencies with diverse cities and cultures. These communities all have one thing in common: For survival, each must make a rapid shift away from the fossil fuel business-as-usual practice. According to the April 2014 IPCC Working Group III report, to avoid even more dangerous levels of global warming, the worldwide community must defund the fossil fuel industry by $30 billion a year through 2030 and increase investments in renewable energy sources by $147 billion annually if carbon emissions are to remain below the maximum two degree Celsius threshold for safety. How, then, will we redefine our university’s global relationships across the board in response to this knowledge?
NYU and its global network has the opportunity to meet the challenges of a growing divestment movement, collaborating with a prudentially and morally motivated global civil society that calls forth such leadership.
Prudentially, divestment is right. An argument that NYU’s endowment holdings are not significant enough to matter to the fossil fuel industry ignores the evidence of a recent study by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at Oxford University that supports the far-reaching power of stigmatization. Historic divestment strategies, such as those against apartheid and the tobacco industry, have been successful in transforming corporate behavior, influencing investors, lowering stock values and pressuring government legislation that would not otherwise have happened. Such indirect effects, which may include leveraging a carbon tax, would indeed have an economic consequence for the fossil fuel industry. Moreover, reinvestment in renewable energy alternatives can disrupt business-as-usual practice and trigger urgently needed fossil-free innovations. There is a growing array of resources available to help institutions like NYU reinvest in Earth health-promoting ventures, including investment firms like the Aperio Group and not-for-profits like the Responsible Endowments Coalition. Other studies, including one by S&P Capital IQ, support the argument that divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting responsibly is more profitable than not doing so. NYU can not only get on board but also determinedly support the invention of new resources for advancing climate justice.
Morally, divestment is right. If NYU stubbornly resists divestment, we will unethically damage our own mission — that is, we will harm our own students, faculty, staff and neighbors worldwide — by being complicit in harming Earth’s health. Ultimately, we will bring about our own failure.
However, my participation with a growing global climate justice movement gives me hope that we might not fail. An increasing number of people within the NYU community and beyond are exhibiting the cognitive and affective capacity to care about and bravely confront the unprecedented challenged with which we are all faced. And might is enough to motivate many others and I to keep trying to turn present life-destroying trends in the direction of healing Earth and ourselves.
Julianne Warren is a contributing writer. Email her at
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