Following on Stanford’s announcement last month that it would be divesting its holdings in coal companies, faculty at both Oxford and Harvard have increased the pressure on their administrators to divest. While faculty at both universities had called on their administration to divest prior to Stanford’s announcement, there has been a notable uptick in support since May 6th. Signatories to Harvard faculty’s open letter have nearly doubled while the signatories to Oxford’s have increased tenfold.
This increase in pressure for divestment at two globally leading universities underlines why Stanford’s action was so important. Yes, measured against the scale at which we must reduce emissions Stanford’s divestment from coal companies was nearly meaningless. It will almost certainly lead to no direct reductions in emissions. That is a fair criticism of the university divestment campaign but it misses the point.
Stanford’s decision was important not because it will directly reduce climate changing emissions. It was important because it signals a shift in attitudes about fossil fuel divestment. Gestures do matter, particularly among academic institutions who compete over students whose decisions about which university to attend may not always be entirely rational. Stanford’s decision to divest puts pressure on other academic institutions to follow their lead. If potential students care about climate change there are certainly some out there who will choose Stanford over Harvard because of this announcement. In the arms race of college admissions, Stanford’s announcement just increases their arsenal.
But their action doesn’t just put pressure on other universities to follow. It also provides cover for faculty at other universities to pressure their administration. It was one thing for a Harvard faculty member to pressure Harvard to divest if no other university has done it. It is entirely different, and less career threatening, to do so now that Stanford has taken the lead. The reality of this is being borne out by the increased faculty pressure at Harvard and Oxford.
But even if every university divested it wouldn’t put the fossil fuel companies out of business. So why does it matter? It matters because if major institutional investors like Stanford and Harvard can divest for climate change reasons then so can other institutional investors. Just like Stanford provides cover for Harvard faculty, universities provide cover for other institutions. Divestment campaigns gain power as they gain followers; universities can provide cover for many followers who might not want to be (or be able to be) a leader to join the campaign.
Criticism that the fossil fuel divestment movement is not having a direct impact on emissions is fair. It might even be fair to say that the campaigners could have a greater impact on climate change if they focused their organizing efforts elsewhere. But it is not fair to say that divestment doesn’t matter. It is a positive step in the right direction even if it is a small one.
Image Credit: Jacob Rus