Smith College will divest from fossil fuels within 15 years

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Staff Writer
Published: 10/19/2019 1:45:06 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Smith College board of trustees voted Friday to divest 100 percent of its fossil fuel investments within 15 years. The vote comes following years of student demands for divestment.

After the board’s announcement, more than 100 members of the Smith community and other advocacy organizations gathered in front of Pierce Hall for a rally to recognize the milestone and call for continued action from the college.

“We are here today not only to celebrate the step Smith has taken in the right direction,” said Emma Freedman, a student organizer with Divest Smith College, “but also to hold Smith accountable for the work that still needs to be done. Smith is still complicit.”

Smith College President Kathleen McCartney and board of trustees Chairwoman Deborah Duncan issued a joint statement Friday morning announcing that the college will direct its outsourced endowment management firm, Investure, “to exclude from the Smith College endowment all future investments with fossil-fuel specific managers,” and implement “an immediate phaseout of all current investments with fossil-fuel specific managers” in the college’s $1.9 billion endowment.

“This phaseout will be achieved through the sale, maturity or liquidation of investments held by fossil-fuel specific managers over a projected period of 15 years,” the announcement said.

As of June 30, 6.4 percent of the college’s endowment is invested indirectly in fossil fuels, according to the Smith website.

Divestment has received substantial support from the student body. In a fall semester Student Government Association referendum, 92 percent of students voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment.

“Today, the board has heard our demand and announced their plan to divest from the fossil fuel industry,” Freedman said.

While celebrating the move toward divestment, speakers called for further action from the college. Freedman said the college has not met Divest Smith College’s calls to release plans to increase transparency in the divestment process, and also called for the college to declare a climate change emergency and divest at a faster rate.

“A 15-year divestment plan is not rapid enough,” Freedman said, referencing a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning that the world now has 11 years to prevent irreversible damage caused by climate change.

“We have only 11 years to rework our global economy,” Freedman said. “Smith needs to take rapid action and be a responsible member of the global community, and of our local community.”

In an interview with the Gazette, Duncan said the board factored in recommendations from the school’s Committee on Climate Change and Divest Smith College when voting to divest. Changes in Investure have also allowed them to take up divestment, she said.

The 15-year timeline is an estimate, Duncan said, and “it’s really difficult to say” whether divestment may be completed faster than anticipated, as divestment depends on how quickly outside managers sell, liquidate or mature investments, which she said the college does not have control over.

“I think we would be happy if it would be faster, but that is our best guess at the moment,” Duncan said.

The college's investments would be reduced in value by 50 percent within 5 years, according to current projections, and 75 percent within 8 years. 

Duncan said that the board plans to start posting quarterly updates regarding fossil fuels and other environmental and sustainability matters, and that declaring a climate change emergency is “something we will look at.”

Vicki Elson, co-founder of Northampton-based NuclearBan.US, said that Smith’s decision to divest “will make it so much easier to get other institutions on board.”

Elson emphasized a need for “big, bold, uncompromising action on a very large scale” for both climate change and nuclear weapons.

“When life gives us man-made emergencies, we make feminist solutions, and we have them,” she added, referencing initiatives such as the Green New Deal and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

Irvine Sobelmen, a steering committee member of Climate Action Now Western Massachusetts, said the vote marks “a major step toward challenging business as usual in our community,” but agreed that there is more work to be done.

Claire McCoy, a Smith senior and student organizer with Sunrise Northampton, also highlighted the urgency of combating climate change at the rally.

“Such a critical moment in our history demands each of us, individuals and institutions, to ask ourselves what we can do and how we can leverage whatever resources we have, so in 11 years, we can look back and say we stood for what was right.”

“For a college like Smith, that means putting your money where your mouth is and divesting from the fossil fuel industry,” she said. “I was so excited to learn this morning that Smith agreed that it’s time to act with integrity and responsibility by divesting, especially during this themed year on climate change.”

“Both emergencies require big, bold, uncompromising action on a very large scale,” Elson said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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