Bowdoin Climate Action (BCA) hosted a panel of advocates and experts to discuss divestment on Saturday night, after being postponed multiple times due to weather.
The panel was composed of 350.org founder Bill McKibben and Director of the Responsible Endowment Coalition Dan Apfel, who both conferenced in via Skype to join Unity College President Stephen Mulkey, Director of the Sierra Club Maine Glen Brand, and divestment coordinator for 350.org Maine Read Brugger—all panelists spoke critically about Bowdoin’s resistance to divestment.
McKibben said that Bowdoin, by not divesting, is acting in opposition to its values.
“Bowdoin has been spent years boasting what a green school they are, and how committed they are to climate change,” McKibben said. “Colleges are committed to intellectual consistency, and it makes no sense to not have a green portfolio as well. If Bowdoin can't bring itself to do this small thing, it might as well stop teaching about climate change. Education without action is something that goes stale very quickly.”
McKibben highlighted Unity College, the first college to divest, as an example of the standard he says Bowdoin should hold itself to.
“Unity College has been brave and taken a stand, it hasn’t been crouched and defensive and scared because it has so much money that it is afraid to lose a little bit of it,” McKibben said.
Bowdoin Student Government (BSG) President Dani Chediak asked Mulkey about the college’s roles in making political statements.
“Our college president recently told us that the primary reason he’s not wiling to have us divest is that he does not believe Bowdoin as a college should be making a political statement about fossil fuels,” Chediak said.
Mulkey responded by saying that, although as a general statement higher education should remain as objective and detached as it can be, climate change is so big that it falls outside of that.
“I think it’s the role of all higher education to have an obligation to future generations, and there’s no question that there’s an ethical disconnect to be invested in the renewal of civilization and put money into its destruction,” Mulkey said. “Any institution invested in societal well being that does not have a stand on climate change strikes me as bizarre.”
Chediak said that BSG Executive Committee would meet Sunday to discuss their viewpoint on divestment, and will continue that conversation at their Wednesday meeting before releasing a statement on the subject.
The panelists all stressed the magnitude of the problem of climate change and said that colleges and universities can send a message to fossil fuel companies through divestment.
“Colleges can make a real and palpable difference moving forward,” said McKibben. “They can help us set a moral and intellectual standard from which to judge these companies in the years to come.”
While the economic effect on fossil fuel companies following college divestment would be negligible, the panel said that direct economic harm is not what divestment is trying to accomplish.
“It begins to undermine social capital and sway of the fossil fuel sector,” said Brand.
Biology Professor John Lichter, who was present at the panel, said that he was skeptical of that methodology.
“What needs to be done is to cut carbon consumption,” Lichter said, “which is not what they’re saying they want to do, they want to make the statement though divestment. This makes us feel like we did something, but not anywhere near close to actually having an impact.”
Lichter said that he would like to see the student activists directing their energy towards oil subsidies and carbon emissions, and that it would involve sacrifices.
“The best way to cut emissions would be to close buildings down, which would inconvenience everyone,” Lichter said. “Is everyone willing to do that?”
While the other panelists focused on the ideology and effects of divestment for the fossil fuel industry, Apfel discussed the financial impact that divestment would have on the College.
“We really don’t know, but we know that if you look at the numbers, and the 1.4% [that is invested in fossil fuels] at Bowdoin, it’s definitely not going to cost the school a huge amount of money,” Apfel said. “It’s more likely that will make money.”
Mulkey also discussed the finances of divestment, and said that it was a very easy step for Unity to take due to the transparency of their endowment and their involvement in index funds.
“It hasn’t been that hard,” Mulkey said. “It’s been relatively straightforward.”
A member of the audience asked Apfel about the 25 percent of the endowment that is connected to those fossil fuel investments as stated by President Barry Mills, and Apfel said that should not pose that large of a problem.
Apfel said that, in order to optimize a divested portfolio, the College would have to find investment managers who would make socially responsible changes while still maintaining a successful endowment.
“If they say that there’s no other way for them to do this [make investments], then they don’t really know what they’re doing managing their endowment,” Apfel said. “There’s no perfect set of managers, but can find ones that fit what they want to do. If they tell you otherwise it's because they’re not willing to try.”
Furthermore, panelists said that fossil fuel companies are going to eventually become bad investments.
“It’s not crazy to say that fossil fuel investments will be riskier and riskier,” said Brand.
Becky Halbrook, a Phippsburg resident who attended the panel, cited that as one of the main reasons she favors divestment.
“We favor divestment,” Halbrook said. “The main reason is, it's a financial thing. As the carbon bomb explodes, colleges shouldn't have their money there. It's going to be a huge loss for the College."
The audience at the panel was split between members of the community and Bowdoin students, with about 20 community members and 30 students. No members of the administration attended. The Bowdoin students present were mainly those already active in BCA, according to Bridget McCoy ’15.
Gene Parker, a Brunswick resident, said that there was a lot of interest in the subject in the community.
“When Unity College announced they’d divested I thought that was wonderful, and that it would be great if they could do it at Bowdoin,” Parker said.
Although there was low student turnout, McCoy said that she thought the panel was a success.
“We’re hoping for a continued dialogue and continued presence,” McCoy said.