On February 13, 2020 (Fossil Fuel Divestment Day), Divest Princeton submitted a proposal to the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Resources Committee demanding the University divest and dissociate from all fossil fuel companies and related interests. Below is the submitted proposal in its entirety.
On November 8, 2020, the Princeton Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Senate approved Divest Princeton's Winter ballot referendum, which includes language refining the proposal's demands.
Divest Princeton's most current demands are listed below alongside the original set, which has been grayed out.
The Honorable Blair Schoene
Resources Committee Chair
Council of the Princeton University Community
February 13th, 2020
Cc: The Honorable Christopher Eisgruber
President of Princeton University
Dr. Schoene and members of the Committee,
Divest Princeton, an all-volunteer association of Princeton students and alumni, submits the following petition for your review and consideration. It conveys our deep concern about Princeton’s financial ties to fossil fuel companies, which we urge be ended as immediately as possible.
Specifically, Divest Princeton recommends the following actions:
Princeton University divests of all its direct holdings of fossil fuels;
Princeton University divests of all indirect holdings of fossil fuels (e.g. commingled funds and shareholders of major fossil fuel companies);
Princeton University prohibits new research and associative financial relationships with fossil fuel companies;
Princeton University establishes a body to ensure its endowment is ethically invested; and
This new body hosts open meetings and releases regular, publicly verifiable reports to measure its progress.
Princeton University divests its endowment, as quickly as possible, of all direct and indirect holdings of fossil fuel companies (i.e., companies engaged in the extraction, production, distribution, and/or sale of oil, coal, natural gas, and their derivatives);
Princeton University ends, as quickly as possible, all formal associations (e.g., the acceptance of large gifts, on-campus recruitment, event sponsorship, and new or renewed research partnerships with Princeton centers and/or academic departments) with fossil fuel companies;
Princeton University withholds investment in, and refuses association with, fossil fuel companies unless and until they:
Develop science-based emissions reduction targets commensurate with the Paris Agreement and its successors;
Verify emissions reductions targets through neutral, third-party observers;
Princeton University withholds investment in, and refuses association with, fossil fuel companies found to have spread climate disinformation following the adoption of these principles;
Princeton University establishes a publicly-monitored body to ensure that its endowment is ethically invested;
Princeton University reinvests divested funds in climate-sustaining assets and frontline communities most harmed by climate change.
We present the following rationale for divestment (and reinvestment in socially and environmentally responsible industries) in the hopes of hastening Princeton’s transition. In the following sections we (1) outline the precedent for divestment, (2) present support for divestment among University stakeholders, (3) underpin divestment in the University’s core values, (4) demonstrate the importance of divestment to the Princeton community, (5) ground divestment in Princeton’s fiduciary duty, and (6) show potential conflicts of interest that divestment would eliminate.
Introduction: Divestment is needed now more than ever.
The breakdown of our climate is already well underway. July, 2019 was the planet’s hottest month on record. Global average temperatures have increased 2.19℉ since the pre-industrial era, bringing about storms and other catastrophes that have disproportionately targeted the poor and least-prepared.
In Northern India and Pakistan, heatwaves approaching 123℉ scorched densely-populated areas over the course of three weeks in Summer, 2019. Years of weak or late monsoons rendered the City of Chennai (population seven million) virtually without groundwater — a frightful situation twenty other Indian cities (population 100 million) are expected to encounter within the year.
In Indonesia, the problem has not been a lack of water, but an excess — floods killed sixty people as the rest of the world rang in the new decade. In nearby Australia, meanwhile, fires destroyed over 2,000 homes, decimated wildlife (with over an estimated 1.25 billion animals killed), and forced thousands to flee to the nearest beaches until safe escape routes could be cleared.
Across the Pacific, California witnessed its worst-ever wildfire seasons in 2017 and 2018. Concerned 2019 would continue the trend, utility company PG&E preemptively cut power amid 100MPH winds, leaving over three million citizens without electricity for over a week.
Antarctica experienced a record-high 65℉ this past June. A hemisphere away, hundreds of fires blazed through arboreal forests in Siberia, Greenland, and Alaska — vital carbon stores and sources of global oxygen— in what would become the Arctic Circle’s worst recorded fire season. These fires emitted more CO2 than in the previous eight Junes put together, an amount roughly equal to Sweden’s annual emissions output.
Wherever the crisis, every day society has more reasons to fear climate change, and our leaders have fewer excuses for inaction. Science has revealed, confirmed, and re-confirmed existential threats posed by climate change, and scientists roundly agree anthropogenic emissions exacerbate the climate crisis. Princeton scientists have been at the forefront of this consensus. Take for example Syukuro Manabe, a senior meteorologist with Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and one of the first to establish greenhouse gases change the distribution of global temperature.
To halt warming well below 2°C, the level scientists generally agree to be the tipping point, humankind must reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by mid-century. According to findings from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have at most ten years to respond before we slide irreversibly down the path to environmental ruin.
The injustice of this crisis is profound; people in the Global South are hit first and worst by the effects of climate change, though they contribute fewer emissions-per-capita than their counterparts living in the Global North. The most vulnerable communities throughout the world — people of color, the poor, and other marginalized groups — already face outsized impacts of climate change, including lower crop yields and faster-spreading disease. Due to climate change, these problems will develop into protracted regional conflicts and vulnerable people will be pushed further into harm’s way.
Experts have estimated that 400,000 people die annually from climate change, and casualties multiply when one considers long-term exposure to poisoned air and water — a recent report finds air pollution from the burning of fossil fuels causes over four million premature deaths per year. Despite these dire findings, Princeton University, along with other high-profile institutions ostensibly opposed to climate change, maintains financial relationships with companies at the root of the problem, primarily (but not exclusively) via investments from its roughly $26 billion endowment.
Through its research and curriculum, Princeton shows it realizes the scope of the climate crisis as both a natural disaster and issue of systemic social injustice. Yet despite this clear understanding, it remains complicit in the problem. Our community of concerned Princetonians argues the University can neither serve its students nor critically examine climate change while investing in companies whose extraction from the environment and deliberate misinformation have precipitated our current emergency.
Section 1: Divestment has precedent, both inside and outside academia.
In 1985 Princeton stood on the right side of history, joining other universities and institutions to divest (albeit selectively) from corporations supporting South African apartheid. In 2006, Princeton divested from companies doing business in Darfur, South Sudan, where millions of Darfuri civilians had been killed in brutal genocide. In 2020, Princeton faces a new crisis — perhaps the worst humanitarian crisis the world has ever known. Given Princeton’s influence and financial power, it is duty-bound to act.
When Princeton divested in response to apartheid in 1985, its decision stated: “there may be unusual situations in which the University simply does not wish to be associated with a particular company through ownership of its securities.” The report elaborated divestiture should occur “when such action seems required to prevent the University from being associated as a stockholder with a company whose behaviour has been found to represent, in substantial degree, a clear and serious conflict with central values of the University.” Reflecting on Princeton’s apartheid decision, Dr. Elizabeth Haase (Class of 1985) wrote in a recent Daily Princetonian op-ed:
“As an undergraduate at Princeton, I was part of the last wave of students that pressured the University to divest from South African investments. Our movement was part of a sustained, global campaign to end Apartheid. We marched and we chanted, ”Princeton divest, Oh Yeah, Just like the rest, Oh Yeah!” We were briefly arrested, and in 1985, I wrote an op-ed calling on the University to divest. This experience convinced me that Margaret Mead was right: a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Now an alumnus, I am again moved to action, this time to support Divest Princeton, a group of students who are pressuring Princeton University to remove fossil fuel assets from its $26 billion endowment. Others, including Desmond Tutu, have made the link between the struggle for justice in South Africa and the struggle to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.”
Princeton made its decision to divest from South Sudan in part due to “actions of other universities, charitable organisations and public pension systems, and learning more about the political and economic climate in Sudan.” Similar momentum can be seen around the world today; Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Caisse des Dépôts (the French public financial institution), the British Medical Association, the Tate museums, and the Cities of New York and London have all pledged to divest.
The Darfur decision goes on: “the University’s tradition has been to first engage companies in dialog to change corporate behaviours and if that fails to divest. In this case, however, the Resources Committee felt it important to move more quickly.” In our current situation, little suggests engagement with fossil fuel companies will result in actual progress. No dialog with corporations whose existence depends on greenhouse gas production can convince them to cut their operations at the necessary scale. In fact, the fifty biggest oil companies expect to double down in the coming decade, with ExxonMobil and Shell poised to increase production by 35% between 2018 and 2030.
Such behavior risks a liveable future: the IPCC implores us to halve global emissions by 2030 (when the Class of 2020 will return for Ten-Year Reunions) to prevent the effects of warming the planet by 1.5°C. In 2012, the Carbon Tracker Initiative found extracting and burning all planned coal and oil gas reserves would emit five times more carbon than we can afford if we hope to remain under 2°C of global warming. Yet fossil fuel companies have sped forward, prioritizing short-term gain above the profound suffering all around them. Any promises from these companies to support a timely (let alone fair) transition to renewable energy would be completely hollow.
The same imperative which required divestment from South Africa and Darfur compels Princeton to act today. Six years have already passed since the first proposal for fossil fuel divestment was sent to the Resources Committee. It took Princeton sixteen years to (partially) divest from apartheid South Africa after protests began in 1969. If, as the IPCC has warned, the world has ten years to avert disaster, such delays are unacceptable and dangerous. Frank Ikard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, warned in 1965 that “time is running out” to address climate change. In 2020, our time is nearly up.
Princeton’s peer institutions are already reassessing their investments, and many are taking action. On February 1, Harvard Forward announced it had collected 4,500 nominations to elect pro-divestment candidates to the University’s Board of Trustees. Three days later, Harvard’s faculty voted in favor of divestment 179–20. Other universities have gone further; the University of Pennsylvania announced it would no longer hold coal or tar sands investments, Stanford University moved to divest from coal, and the University of California and Georgetown University pledged to divest their endowments from fossil fuels completely, as have 78 of the UK’s 154 public universities.
Section 2: Divestment has maintained strong and sustained support on Princeton’s campus.
Building on the success of previous divestment drives, Princeton students have submitted five petitions seeking an investment portfolio which neither drives nor reinforces systematic axes of oppression, both at home and abroad, most recently requesting divestment from for-profit prisons. This campaign stands on the shoulders of many who have gone before.
Students have regularly expressed a wish for swift climate action and divestment — see examples here, here, here and here. Prior divestment campaigns showed strong support in the Princeton community, garnering roughly 500 signatures in 2016 and 1,600 signatures in 2015. This year, a petition started by Princeton alumni has accumulated 800 signatures from alumni and current students (as of this writing), with signatories promising to withhold donations to the University until its divestment from fossil fuels.
Beyond these direct actions, many campus groups have amplified the need for sustainability, including the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, the Princeton Conservation Society, EcoReps, the Pink House for Social Sustainability, Green Princeton, the Princeton Environmental Activism Coalition, Greening Dining, Divest Princeton, and more. These groups joined the community of Princeton Township for the Global Climate Strikes of September 20, 2019, when over 600 marchers rallied at the campus’s 1879 Arch.
In 2019, a referendum concerning Princeton’s climate change actions was put before the student body. The referendum (sponsored by PSCI) implored the University to take stronger action, passing with 95% approval from undergraduates who voted (with a high student turnout of 43%). The referendum called Princeton to quantify and reduce Scope III emissions (emissions associated with the University that are neither fossil fuels burned on campus nor emissions associated with buying from the grid). Included in Scope III are emissions associated with the University’s endowment.
Section 3: Divestment is an fulfillment of the University’s values.
Princeton purports to be “in the nation’s service, and in the service of humanity.” This commitment is shown both in the extensive community service undertaken by students and faculty, and in the research and instruction that attracts global talent to Princeton. This scholarship is aimed at expanding society’s knowledge and equipping humanity with the tools to negotiate the future, including prominent research dedicated to climate change.
While Princeton takes pride in a history of leadership, on the subject of ethical investing, the University lags behind peer institutions in making necessary changes (see Section One). Other universities have declared fossil fuel investment incompatible with their missions and ideals, and they have chosen not to contradict science delineating obvious links between fossil fuels and climate change. Our peers have affirmed that to fund an industry and profit from it implies support for that industry and a complicitness in its behavior.
In response to previous actions, President Eisgruber has argued Princeton’s divestment from fossil fuels would amount to inappropriate political and institutional position-taking, saying calls for divestment “arise not out of the conduct of a few bad actors but rather out of the conduct of all of us.” The twenty companies responsible for roughly a third of carbon emissions (measured from 1965) have known the risks of their actions since at least the 1950s. Blaming the many instead of these “few” neglects the real origins of climate change and the valiant efforts communities around the world are taking to reduce their carbon footprints. That climate change is partly an individual problem does not exonerate the companies whose actions emit the vast majority of global pollution. To achieve net-zero emissions at the pace scientists demand, these companies must be moved to action.
In April 2015, President Eisgruber wrote a letter to the then-Chair of the Resources Committee, stating the University “aims to influence society principally by the scholarship we generate […] not through economic clout of institutional position-taking.” Eisgruber has also elaborated, “if the University itself behaves in a manner that is politically partial, we weaken our capacity to contribute to this debate in the way that is most needed, and as we are uniquely capable of doing — by providing authoritative and impartial scholarly expertise.” Though Eisgruber’s premises are here correct, his conclusions are not. Princeton exposes itself to charges of partiality and hypocrisy precisely because of, not in spite of, its investments in fossil fuel.
Indeed, Princeton’s support for the fossil fuel industry is a political act in itself, given that industry’s efforts to warp the climate change debate and affect public policy. These companies’ deflection, denial, and delay are all part of a sophisticated strategy intended to convince the world of a lie: leaked documents show Shell and ExxonMobil predicted with great accuracy the lethal trajectory of global emissions and their climate implications as far back as the 1980s. However, in years since they have not only refused to stop extracting and burning fossil fuels, but have deliberately spread misinformation to maintain demand for their harmful products.
Today, companies like BP make great displays of their atonement, funding centers like Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Institute, while in the background thwarting efforts at reform. In 2018, the company alone spent roughly $13 million to block a carbon tax in Washington state, joining a coalition whose dubious ads mischaracterized impacts of previous regulation. Meanwhile in Congress, BP and other companies have sought repeal of the Clean Power Plan and reduced liability for companies implicated in climate damages. Despite their best efforts, the public still believes more must be done: a 2019 Pew Research Center poll showed “two-thirds of US adults (67%) say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change.”
Princeton does not share the same responsibility as the US federal government, though as an institution founded in the “service of humanity,” it must at least do no harm when it comes to the climate. To this end, Princeton recently released a Sustainability Action Plan, which calls for carbon neutrality by 2046 (Harvard, it should be noted, should achieve the same goal twenty years sooner). The University hobbles its pursuit of carbon neutrality by simultaneously supporting the most carbon-intensive companies on the planet, just 100 of which account for 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond being ethical, divestment would aid and align with the University’s sustainable mission.
Princeton’s commitment to “sustainability” has certainly been well-advertised, and the university has deemed itself a ‘model campus’ for sustainability. Director of the Office of Sustainability Shana Weber wrotethat “demonstrating that you are enthusiastically part of the solution can be contagious.” Though we agree, we propose Princeton has been part of the solution only selectively, and we question why Princeton’s standard-bearing must end where the endowment begins. How can the University commit to sustainability without leveraging its greatest asset? Rather than mutually exclusive, divestment and sustainability ought to be one in the same.
Section 4: Divestment is of significant importance to the University community.
Commitment to student wellbeing
In response to previous divestment petitions, the Resources Committee has stated there are exceptions to the presumption against making political statements:
“One exception is when the University takes a position within a political controversy because of an ‘obligation to people (including applicants, faculty, students, and staff) or entities (including the environment on and around our campus) where we exercise direct authority or control or have specific responsibilities,’ such as Princeton’s decision to follow race-conscious admission practices.”
Princeton must recognize how, with climate change, the physical environment on campus is at stake. It must also remember the need to make campus habitable to faculty, students and staff, and to mitigate risks to the home countries of those parties, as well as future applicants. Princeton students and faculty conduct research at sites (e.g., Mpala, Kenya) directly threatened by climate change, where key research might need to be abandoned. The decay of our climate will directly hinder educational activities as increased heat emergencies, severe storms, food shortages, and conflicts interrupt normal University operations, to say nothing of Princetonians’ lives.
In New Jersey, average temperatures have increased by as much as 3°F since 1970, making it the sixth fastest-warming state in the US. Warmer air retains more moisture, increasing the risk of torrential rain, severe storms, and inland floods which endanger people, damage property, and destroy crops. In 2013, neighboring Philadelphia received 7.35 inches of rain in 4.5 hours, its heaviest ever single-day rainfall, and 2010–2020 was the city’s wettest decade ever recorded. Extreme downpours become worse and more frequent with climate change — Climate Central reported that Newark now sees nearly four inches of rain on its wettest day of the year, up from only 2.5 inches in 1950.
In May, 2014, Princeton cancelled morning classes due to floods blocking major roads. In June, 2018, Princeton issued a “seek shelter” warning (canceling its beloved P-rade for the first time in decades) as a severe lightning storm barraged campus. This past June, massive rain flooded multiple buildings on campus as a tornado watch was declared. On Halloween night, a few months later, tornado warnings drove students to seek shelter in University basements. Such inclement weather is motivated by high moisture and swift drops in temperature: phenomena which are made worse by global warming, and which will only worsen with time.
Disruptions are rapidly becoming more severe, frequent, costly, and in some cases deadly. Princeton is not immune to deteriorating global air quality: in May 2016, smoke from wildfires in Alberta, Canada traveled 2,000 miles to reach New Jersey. High ozone pollution will continue to endanger all people, especially those with asthma and respiratory illnesses. Outdoor activities and residential areas lacking climate control (e.g. undergraduate dorms, the Graduate College, and off-campus residences where staff and students reside) become more dangerous with worsening heatwaves. Currently, New Jersey sees five “dangerous” or “extremely dangerous” hot days per year on average, and by 2050 — when the class of 2020 return for Thirty-Year Reunions — it may see as many as thirty. Such extreme heat has been the top cause of weather-related US deaths for the past thirty years.
Commitment to diversity
The Resource Committee’s second exception to making political statements is “when the University advocates ‘on behalf of policies that directly affect our core activities of research and education,’ such as the ‘right of colleges and universities to pursue racial and ethnic diversity.’” Both the extraction and burning of fossil fuels harm the goal of racial and ethnic diversity at Princeton, since black and brown people have been, and will continue to be, the worst affected by climate change. In the US climate events like Hurricanes Katrina and Maria have exposed the racism that too often undermines responses to disaster.
This current problem should be put into perspective. Reporting by Climate Central suggests if carbon emissions continue to rise as they have been, Princeton’s summer temperatures will match those of modern San Antonio by century’s end, when the Class of 2020 will march in the P-rade as members of the “Old Guard.” Applicants and alumni in San Antonio could themselves see a 10°F rise in average summer temperatures — a climate akin to Phoenix, Arizona. Friends, family, students, applicants, and alumni in Phoenix, meanwhile, could see temperatures similar to present-day Kuwait City, where highs reach a staggering 114°F. Kuwait, the hottest of all, could see temperatures over 140°F. For reference, Earth’s highest recorded temperature was 134°F, measured in Death Valley, California.
Prolonged exposure to these conditions poses severe health risks: when humidity and perspiration are accounted for, the survival threshold for the fittest humans, in well-ventilated outdoor conditions, is a “wet-bulb” temperature of 95°F. This limit is of course lower for children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions. Heatwaves exceeding this threshold will become common in countries like Iran, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, where Muslims from around the world could make their Hajj in potentially life-threatening heat. Princeton cannot abet these conditions by supporting the use of fossil fuels. While the university cannot solve climate change alone, it can stand by science, empathize with its global community, and help reduce risks to Princetonians past, present, and future.
Indeed, future Princetonians are as much at risk as current ones: climate change will preoccupy much of the world’s youth with survival, thus stifling their education and blunting Princeton’s efforts to draw international talent. If this University honestly hopes to improve its racial and ethnic diversity, then it must answer for the discord it has helped to sow in the world’s most vulnerable communities. Princeton’s responsibility does not end at Nassau Street. As an institution of historical privilege, Princeton owes a debt of reparation to marginalized communities, including black and brown people around the world who have been, and will continue to be, worst affected by climate change.
Section 5: Divestment is consistent with the University’s fiduciary duty.
Princeton University Investment Company (PRINCO) has a fiduciary responsibility to make money from its endowment and fund students’ education. However, PRINCO also has a parallel responsibility to ensure investments are sustainable and socially responsible. The Annual Report for the Academic Year 2017–2018 states “PRINCO operates under the guiding assumption that an investment decision that takes into account a long view of human progress and social accountability tends to make the most long-term economic sense.” By definition, social accountability means profitability cannot override all else, and some initiatives are off-limits regardless of returns on investment. Given that climate change is an existential threat to humanity and Earth’s biodiversity, and given that the burning of fossil fuels accelerates climate change, social accountability requires Princeton to divest from such activities.
The long view of human progress cannot include fossil fuels, which are neither socially acceptable nor wise investments. Take it from banks themselves: the head of the European Central Bank has declared climate change a “mission-critical” priority, and the Bank of England has evangelized the importance of “shifting the financial system […] to support the 1.5 degree goal of the Paris agreement.” Environmentally responsible industries are often more profitable than oil and coal counterparts. Leading firms like BlackRock will no longer invest in coal projects, citing a fiduciary responsibility to be part of the new, low-carbon economy. In BlackRock’s view, “every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change.”
Princeton cannot, therefore, rationalize unethical investments using fiduciary responsibility as a shield. Investments in sustainable companies are, by definition, more likely to be successful in the long run. The University should redirect its investments to promote ecological resilience and overall community wellbeing. This includes supporting zero-emission public infrastructure projects, businesses committed to carbon neutrality, and social equity through the democratization of economic power. Until then, Princeton will continue to fund unethical business practices for no clear reasons beyond convenience and short term profit, and in doing so escalate the climate crisis and its associated forms of oppression. Princeton risks far more by investing in fossil fuels, whereas the only sure losers from divestment are the polluters Princeton currently funds.
Section 6: Divestment would reduce conflicts of interest.
As evidence of climate change mounts and public consensus around the need for action grows, it is no surprise that fossil fuel companies have tried to rebrand, touting, among other things, their altruistic investments in renewable technologies. Yet in 2018, the fossil fuel industry invested just 1% of total capital expenditure outside oil and gas projects, despite fierce internal and external pressure to do more. With their minimal investments in sustainable enterprises, companies hope mostly to obscure their responsibility for the climate crisis.
BP and ExxonMobil have especially sought to ingratiate themselves with Princeton. Research Funding Annual Reports show between 2000 and 2020, BP poured over $43 million into the University while ExxonMobil gave $6.7 million to Princeton’s foremost climate change research centers: the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the Carbon Mitigation Initiative. At the same time, BP and Exxon have both spread disinformation and helped to prop up organizations that consistently and actively obstruct climate action — this despite internal research from Exxon scientists, which in 1977 showed “overwhelming” consensus that burning fossil fuels increased atmospheric CO2. While both readily donate to influential universities like Princeton, they reflect the broader industry in funding few low-carbon projects.
Research from InfluenceMap revealed that BP spends more than other large fossil fuel corporations on climate lobbying, currently around $53 million per year. ExxonMobil is not far behind at $41 million per year. The author of the research said, “[fossil fuel companies] publicly support climate action while lobbying against binding policy. They advocate low-carbon solutions but such investments are dwarfed by spending on expanding their fossil fuel business.” For years, large fossil fuel corporations have lobbied and donated fiercely to block action on climate change, as in the case of Washington state, and to fund sham science downplaying (or denying) the severity of climate change and responsibility of corporations behind it.
The parallels in tactics taken by the tobacco industry and fossil fuel corporations are striking. Harvard historian Naomi Oreskes notes in Merchants of Doubt the ways in which Big Tobacco funded studies to muddy the direct link between smoking and lung cancer. Would it be acceptable for Princeton to accept lung cancer research funding from the tobacco industry, even if the research was of world-class quality? While we hope scholarly research is impartial to funding sources, it is reasonable to expect that some scientists would self-censor in order to avoid conflict with funders, and that funders would discourage research undermining their business. Furthermore, institutes or labs with prominent conflicts of interest may attract researchers with particular interests of their own, and/or a willingness to compromise objective science. Intentional or not, conflicts of interest threaten the integrity of Princeton research.
Regardless of the effect on academic and scientific integrity, accepting money from certain companies gives them social license to operate, legitimizing their business practices to the public and deflecting suspicion or culpability. Corporations have used universities’ research to shape narratives before. For example, Coca Cola funded research at the University of Colorado about the importance of exercise in losing weight, all as a means to pivot the obesity conversation away from sugary beverages. In 2015, the University returned these funds.
Similarly, Princeton should reconsider the implications of accepting research funding from fossil fuel companies — particularly regarding the very issue these companies have spent decades attempting to obfuscate and disparage. In its report on South Africa divestiture, the University said divestiture should be considered, “when such action seems required to prevent the University from being associated as a stockholder with a company whose behaviour has been found to represent, in substantial degree, a clear and serious conflict with central values of the University.” The sustained, dangerous, and unethical campaigns of fossil fuel companies, including BP and ExxonMobil, meet these requirements.
Princeton should not abide blatant corporate greenwashing, even when it is the short-term beneficiary. Fossil fuel companies donate to Princeton precisely so that decisions like this one are difficult to make. Meanwhile, they are nourished and protected by the legitimacy they gain playing ‘partner’ to leading research institutions, and they will readily use these relationships as props (see ExxonMobil’s press releases). Princeton must realize that fossil fuel companies’ capital and clout are barriers to progress. It cannot preach its values while providing this industry with financial support and social license.
Section 7: Divestment is needed now.
Divestment skeptics often ask a few big questions; primarily, how does divestment factor in society’s energy needs? Fossil fuels power the lights we turn on every night, after all. But while Princeton will surely rely on fossil fuels for years to come, this is no cause for resignation. True, Princeton relies on fossil fuels, but it is also true Princeton cannot do so forever. It must reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower its carbon footprint, and shift to alternative, ethical energy. This shift must include divestment.
Investments are by nature future-oriented; how we invest today will affect the world tomorrow, and by shifting investment away from fossil fuels — or better yet, toward the development of alternatives — the University can steer progress in the right direction. Princeton has been wary of using its endowment as a signaling tool, but we argue Princeton should divest regardless of how others interpret its decision. If for no other reason, divestment would help to realize the University’s values and strategic vision. It is both the moral choice, and the choice most in the University’s interest.
The members of our movement demand action because their lives, homes, and futures are at stake. Climate change is not up for debate, and though we acknowledge divestment will not be easy, we know progress must begin immediately. We are all called to resist climate change to the extent our power allows, and with $26 billion under its control, Princeton has more power than most. If universities like Princeton who pride themselves on reason and evidence-based leadership fail to take necessary steps in the fight against climate change, who will?
To uphold its good name and protect all members of the University community, Princeton must divest its holdings — direct and indirect — in fossil fuel companies. We urge these holdings be reinvested in assets which reduce the threat of climate change, mitigate damage imposed on the Global South and other vulnerable people, and reverse the institutionalization of poverty caused by the discriminatory extraction and use of fossil fuels. More horizontal investments, distributed among a larger diversity of businesses and communities and made with the intent to strengthen public and ecological resilience, would be infinitely superior to supporting the status quo.
We hope the committee will discuss these recommendations with the weight they deserve and respond to our petition as promptly as possible. Please know our organization, and likely many others, would eagerly assist the administration in seeing this plan through.