Recently, The Johns Hopkins University made the decision to divest thermal coal from its endowment. While we commend this step away from the fossil fuel industry, this is just delaying the need for future divestment. By not fully rejecting the industries of other fossil fuels, such as oil and natural gas, the university is simply sidestepping its responsibility as a leader in public health.
The Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee (PIIAC) was commissioned two years ago to evaluate a student proposal for a complete divestment from fossil fuels. This proposal asked the university to remove all investments in fossil fuel holdings from its endowment. In September, PIIAC released its suggestions for the University. They recommended that Hopkins, “divest immediately from bond holdings in Carbon Underground 200 companies.” These are the top 100 coal and the top 100 oil and gas companies that hold these resources in reserve. PIIAC went on to recommend that no new partnerships with these companies be made, as well as that the university should consider reinvesting in renewable energy the $6 million invested in fossil fuels as of March 2017.
When PIIAC first released these guidelines, it seemed like a positive step toward the university taking a stand against climate change. However, though the board of trustees acted quickly, they did not fully embrace these recommendations. Instead, they chose to take a step that, while commendable is really only a first step. Furthermore, they are treating this small step as a strong statement against climate change.
The university has a habit of overstating its achievements in sustainability. For example, in 2008 the university pledged to decrease its carbon emissions and to date has stated that they have decreased by 32.5 percent. This is impressive, however PIIAC has estimated that approximately 90 percent of that decrease is due to changes in the regional energy grid, not changes made by the university. This decision about divestment was a moment for the university to take a strong stand against climate change. Yet, they chose only to divest from coal.
Coal is a big contributor to air pollution and carbon emissions. However, the excavation process of other fossil fuels leads to water pollution, oil spills and sea-level rise, all of which disproportionately affect those with low socio-economic status. The removal of investments in coal is important, however, it does not acknowledge the vast environmental and public health hazards caused by other types of fossil fuels.
Coal is a decreasingly relevant fuel source and its contributions to current carbon emissions are therefore constantly decreasing. Hopkins joins many of its peer institutions, such as Stanford and Columbia, in divesting from coal. However, this is not a progressive step. Coal is an industry in decline. By just removing these investments Hopkins is not making a statement about fossil fuels as a whole. Rather, they are simply removing themselves from industries that are increasingly less profitable.
Though removing one university’s investments would not financially cripple the fossil fuel industry, it would be a public statement about our lack of faith in fossil fuel sustainability and a condemnation of its effect on the environment. Divestment in this case would be acting as a form of boycott and lead the market to start considering the implications of climate change when evaluating investments and encourage investment into renewable resources.
The university decided not to fully divest in order to honor their “fiduciary duty to maximize support for the universities teaching, research, and patient care missions.” This implies that divestment is a risky financial move. However, in their recommendations, PIIAC considered the financial implications of divestment and concluded that it was fiscally as well as morally responsible.
Had Hopkins followed the suggestions of the committee they commissioned, we would have become the American university with the largest endowment to have fully divested from fossil fuels. As an institution with as much power and influence as Johns Hopkins, divesting from fossil fuels would make a powerful and lasting statement.
Meagan Peoples (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Morgan Balster (email@example.com) are students at Johns Hopkins.