A Call for Divestment: Responding to the Faces of Climate Change

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Whom do you see?

BY DAVID ALBARESJanuary 13, 2015

Shamoy’s braids are decorated with dangling little pink and white beads. She is an adorable third grader. She is crying ferociously at her desk. I am kneeling next to her desperately searching for words, but just find myself repeating that I loved her story, that I am proud of her. It is one of the clearest memories from my short time spent in Jamaica through a Boston College service immersion program. When I think of Jamaica and the way that pain seemed to be all wrapped up in joy, I think of Shamoy. Her smile, her tears, her pink and white beads embody an experience that continues to inspire me to be more loving, to act more justly, to be more faithful.

Let’s go over the basics. What does “fossil fuel divestment” mean? It means the removal of university endowment investments from the top 200 hundred publicly-traded fossil fuel companies as a way to call attention to climate change. Why would a Jesuit university not fully support a movement aimed at reducing climate change? Especially when Papa Frank (His Holiness Pope Francis) is saying, “This is one of the greatest challenges of our time: to convert ourselves to a type of development that knows how to respect creation”?

There are a few reasons. One often given is that we should not politicize the endowment. The endowment, the thinking goes, has one mission: to increase the endowment. For a Jesuit university, this is a non-starter. What exactly makes a Jesuit university “Jesuit” is a post for another day, but we can all agree on at least two points: a Jesuit university does not exist solely for itself or its students; and, of course, you can find God in all things…no exclusion clause for endowments.

The second reason provided to not divest is that a university should focus its efforts on what it’s good at, teaching and research. I sincerely believe that the teaching and research of today, which will give us the leaders and technology of tomorrow, will be too late. Action is needed now.

Lastly, it’s pointed out that divestment will not affect fossil fuel company bottom lines. It’s true. If every university in the country divested from fossil fuels, there would hardly be an economic impact. But, that is kind of the point. With a semester of microeconomics on the transcript as my credentials, I can shout, “Externality!” at the economics of climate change. For those new to microeconomics, this just means that the market does not account for environmental damage; therefore, a political solution is needed.

So, yes, divestment is a symbolic political action without a clear outcome as a result. Does that mean that it won’t matter? Does Pope Francis embracing a humble Papacy matter? Does the cross matter? Catholics know the power of symbols. These arguments, though, do not get to the heart of why there is little movement from Jesuit universities to divest from fossil fuels. The true problem is that there are not enough voices calling for action. The same type of fervor felt for divestment from apartheid South Africa is what is required today for the divestment from fossil fuels.

Why the lack of voices though? Perhaps because we the students, faculty, and administration of our schools have never seen the faces of those most affected by climate change or toxic pollution. But if you’ve been around Jesuit education long enough and if you have read this far, the chances are that you have, you just didn’t know it. Odds are you have learned or spent time in places like the Philippines, Latin America, the Gulf Coast, or Appalachia—all places that have faced and will face tragedies because of climate change and fossil fuels.

We come back from these places on the margins changed, oftentimes converted. We bring back faces, we bring back stories, but most of all we bring back questions. The question that gets repeated the most: “What do I do now?” I believe one answer has to be to commit to work against climate change via divestment. I didn’t know it when I met Shamoy, but she is the face of climate change for me. She inspires me to continue to work for divestment. That’s why I see her face in that blank space. Whom do you see?

Note: Below is a list of groups at Jesuit universities working for divestment from fossil fuels. Add your group in the comments section if I have missed you.

Boston College: BC Fossil Free
Georgetown University: GU Fossil Free
Seattle University: Sustainable Student Action










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