Horwitz: Cowardice or moral bankruptcy?

Either way, university leadership is complicit in climate injustice

Avi Horwitz, Staff Columnist

In spring 2014, Undergraduate Student Government (USG), presented Resolution 23-08 which called on “the president and board of trustees of Case Western Reserve University to divest the university’s endowment from publicly traded fossil fuel companies.” Simply put, USG requested the administration remove morally ambiguous stocks, bonds and investment funds. The resolution was the culmination of 14 drafts by Student Sustainability Council members Jack Turner and Steven Cramer, whose research also included a survey that found more than 80% of the student body in support of a “more carbon friendly environment.” 

The resolution’s justification for divestment includes four distinct points. 

First, and perhaps most important, is the reality of climate change. The 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report acknowledged that rampant greenhouse gas (GHG) pollution was detrimentally affecting ecosystems around the world. More recent IPCC reports have expressed even more urgency, suggesting we are very quickly running out of time to act before it is too late to make any substantial, lasting difference. 

The resolution was also precise to include statistics on the climate change mortality rate. “According to the DARA Climate Vulnerability Monitor, approximately 400,000 people per year die from the impacts of climate change.” Further, climate change is disproportionate in its effects. That is, the people impacted the most contribute the least to carbon emissions. 

Additionally, climate change has an economic cost, wasting $1.2 trillion per year—1.6% of global economic output. 

Specifically in regards to the Cleveland community, our region has been detrimentally impacted by heightened droughts and floods—the results of which reverberate through agriculture and infrastructure development. While CWRU has agreed to the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, there are many additional—and more significant—efforts which must be addressed. 

CWRU invests an undisclosed amount of its $1.87 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry. However, they declined to disclose approximately what percentage is currently fossil fuel related and how that number has fluctuated over the past few decades. No one is truly foolish enough to believe that disclosing the requested numbers would harm the portfolio or its stakeholders. Releasing this information is the bare minimum, and to do otherwise is a blatant attempt to escape accountability for the intentional decisions to invest in “morally ambiguous” industries. 

In October 2018, the United Nations IPCC gave humanity until 2030 to cut its carbon emissions by nearly half. It further stipulated that global emissions must reach net-zero by mid-century in order to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. It is key to understand that the 2017 Carbon Majors Report found that just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of the global emissions since 1988. Even more alarming are the suggestions that “the world would have to leave two-thirds of its fossil fuel reserves unexploited” if we are to avoid the least catastrophic side effects of increased global temperature. As a result, it is downright abhorrent to continue investing in an industry that bears significant responsibility for the crisis that disproportionately harms low-income, minority and indigenous communities, in addition to threatening the future of each and every human being. The university declined to comment on this disparity and whether they are currently pursuing any means to address the harm done to the aforementioned communities, both in the Cleveland area and around the globe.

The destruction perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry is not accidental. The Climate Deception Dossiers, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists, contains over 300 pages worth of documents and internal memos from fossil fuel companies that ​display a deep understanding of potential implications as far back as the 1980s. Even more unforgivable is the evidence of “forged letters to Congress, secret funding of a supposedly independent scientist, the creation of fake grassroots organizations, multiple efforts to deliberately manufacture uncertainty about climate science and more.” 

CWRU cannot credibly claim to be an institution that promotes scientific inquiry and academic integrity, nor can it continue to assert that the university holds self-stated core values, such as “academic freedom and responsibility,” “ethical behavior” and an “emphasis on sustainability” while continuing to invest in publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Given a chance to state their own position on these antithetical business decisions and questions of credibility, the university declined to comment. In order to salvage any credibility as an institution that promotes scientific inquiry and academic integrity, the university must immediately divest any and all endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry in a transparent and publicly verifiable manner. The first step is to disclose what percentage of the endowment is invested in the industry.

Further, Naomi Klein, an internationally known and respected author, activist and climate change expert, has asserted that continued investment in the fossil fuel industry acts as a “social license to operate” for fossil fuel companies. Given that “100 active fossil fuel producers are linked to 71% of global industrial GHGs since 1988,” and that “32% of historic emissions come from publicly listed investor-owned companies,” it is only honest to say that CWRU is complicit in climate injustice. Yet, the university declined to comment on this assertion, as well its responsibility to its students, workers, community, country and world to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry. 

Simply refusing to answer these questions will not make the truth go away. The only way to change CWRU’s new label as an enabler of the climate crisis and subsequent injustice, once again, is to immediately divest any and all endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry in a transparent and publicly verifiable manner.

The university’s dismissal of the 2014 resolution raises questions about whether they truly take resolutions passed by USG seriously. While the university declines to comment on how much credence they give to these resolutions, it must be noted that after President Snyder and the Board of Trustees made clear that they did not intend to follow the recommendation made by the resolution, it does not appear that student representatives actively fought this decision and have failed to renew the resolution after it expired. 

Perhaps President Snyder and the Board of Trustees are unwilling to pursue divestment as a result of significant conflicts of interest. Take Chuck Fowler, for example, who served as the Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 2012-2016. Between 1996-2013, Fowler also served as Chief Executive Officer and President of Fairmount Santrol, a leading mining and processing company which serves the international oil and gas markets. The university declined to comment on any concerns it might have with regards to Fowler possibly impacting the decision to divest back in 2014 or in the future. It is worrying to consider that CWRU’s spineless approach to divestment may be vested in the protection of self interests. To protect against situations like this, each member of the Board of Trustees should be required to publicly disclose any personal connections to fossil fuel industries, and recuse themselves from any future decisions regarding such industries and the university endowment.  

As CWRU searches for a new president to replace Barbara Snyder, CWRU had the opportunity to make a statement by guaranteeing that the next president will be a leader who is truly committed to ambitious climate action centered around the university’s core values. But that will likely not be the case as the university declined to comment on any specific steps it was taking to ensure this outcome.  

Each member of university leadership who declines to comment on these questions has proven an astounding level of both cowardice and moral bankruptcy, showing that they are unworthy of the positions they hold. While they have not yet been held accountable for their conscious decisions, hopefully it made them pause, even for just a second, to grapple with the fact that they are complicit in climate injustice.

The “leaders” who chose not to answer did so because they know there is no public relations statement that can hide the ugliness of their choices. In the end, there is only one correct response: action. I repeat, the university must immediately divest any and all endowment funds from the fossil fuel industry in a transparent and publicly verifiable manner, in addition to holding its decision makers accountable for the undeniable and irreversible harm they have caused to their community, and planet as a whole. 

The 50th Anniversary of Earth Day is on Wednesday, and would be a lovely day for the divestment process to begin.