LTE: BC Fossil Free Should Rethink Strategy
Published: Wednesday, February 5, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, February 5, 2014 23:02
I respectfully disagree with the approach and message of BC Fossil Free. It may be cool to be green, and there are legitimate arguments to be made for sustainability. Divesting from the Boston College endowment fossil-fuel related assets, however, deserves further scrutiny and a willingness to debate openly its merits. The folks at BCFF may think, “Why bother?” People should just accept that there is a foregone moral imperative to divest and that we must do so now, right? Such a mentality doesn’t sound like the position of a supposedly “inclusive” movement as its supporters published in a Heights LTE and therockatbc.com seem to believe. This reluctance to address fundamental challenges to their worldview harms not only their own cause but advocacy for a more sustainable BC.
As a former chairman of the BC Policy Caucus, I am not only familiar with BC Fossil Free; I saw its inception as its proposals were shuttled through my committee. Now, as UGBC’s chief policy lobbyist and head of the legislature, I can see how BCFF’s approach is misguided. They need to educate the general student body so that they understand the arguments at hand for what they are. Let’s take the counter-view for a moment.
For example, their notion that “pretty soon there won’t be any more fossil fuels in which to invest” is wildly off the mark. Pre-existing deposits would have lasted well into the next century. New deposits are being found, and the free market has made previously difficult-to-reach reservoirs economically profitable to develop. The fact of the matter is that fossil fuels are going to be around for a very long time. People shouldn’t be hoodwinked into believing that we are at the edge of some sort of energy precipice. There are more effective ways of driving that should be their point—that we should consider energy resources that can be replenished.
The context of BCFF’s message having been refuted, let’s examine another claim that divestment is “clean, moral, and financially smart.” Financially, there is little BCFF can claim since there is no set data on the relative composition of the endowment—at least that part of it related to fossil fuels—that is available to students. Even without data, we shouldn’t trust BCFF as our financial advisors. In the long-term, energy investments are stable and earn healthy returns. The way energy prices and the prospects of the industry look, to invest even more in energy seems to be a more compelling argument than to divest.
And what do we do with those earnings? It gets put into resources here at BC. Our facilities, salaries, and programs to benefit all students are in some way funded by the returns made off funds that include fossil fuel-related companies. The clearest moral imperative we have as BC Eagles is to help others—especially those who are our neighbor Eagles. Are we to risk a diminishment of resources by carrying through with divestment? In order to spur change in our society—in areas beyond climate change—we need to be able to educate leaders all across the spectrum and giving them the opportunity to engage in diverse experiences. The resources funded by these investments help BC to accomplish this goal.
Now, the practical effect of divestment is nil. What will happen when BC divests its holdings? Someone snaps up the stock and will use it to benefit themselves, and BC is left scrambling to find an investment mix with the right combination of return and risk. It doesn’t take a financial wizard from CSOM to see that even if all the world’s elite universities dropped their investments fossil fuel companies would not be driven out of business or forced to change their business practices to people who are no longer shareholders.
This is the reality of the situation. In a cost-benefit analysis, it sure costs a lot to divest with comparatively little benefit. There is no forgone moral or pragmatic argument to be made. Instead, as people read deeper into the issue, they recognize that the roadblocks are imposed not by the administration but by reality. Suddenly, putting down one’s name on a petition for an issue morally and practically complex doesn’t seem like such an attractive thing to do for many students. The effect is terrible. It turns people away from the sustainability movement as a whole—the advocates for which have done and continue to do great work here at BC.
I give the BCFF folks credit for their energy. They should consider turning it to areas where they can have an effect. Get academic departments to integrate more geoscience aspects into courses. Reach out to clubs and to UGBC to debate the issue of sustainability in open forums. Lobby not to restrict BC’s endowment but to empower it by ensuring that BC’s buildings to come are LEED certified and that we can become an efficient, carbon-neutral campus. These goals are not only possible, but they can also be achieved with the passion exhibited by BCFF folks.
So far, BCFF has raised a fuss and blocked the key pipeline of ideas regarding campus sustainability efforts as a whole. Perhaps it’s time for a retooling and to free up the discussion regarding BC’s fossil fuels.
UGBC Executive Vice President