Emory owes its success to that of the fossil fuel industry. Presently, Emory maintains nearly $5.4 billion in investments in funds which maintain significant stakes in coal, oil, and gas companies that profit from the extraction of fossil fuels. For an endowment that exists to support Emory in perpetuity, continued reliance on a destructive industry whose future is at best time-limited is reckless and illogical.
The continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels is the driving force behind the climate change that threatens to render tomorrow’s earth unrecognizable, particularly to the world’s most vulnerable populations. Humans burn fossil fuels for a variety of economic purposes, including powering transportation and generating electricity.
When burned, fossil fuels release greenhouse gases (GHGs), especially carbon dioxide. GHGs reflect heat energy back to the Earth’s surface. Our atmosphere has experienced an unprecedented rise in GHG concentration since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, meaning that our world holds onto more and more heat. This change in heat retention will have a tremendous effect on our wildly complex climate system, and its effects are only beginning to be felt.
Despite the uncertainties associated with the specifics of climate change, scientists are in consensus that its effects will be broad, diverse, and irreversible. It a question of how effects will be felt, not if. Those that continue to burn fossil fuels subject the world to an experiment with existential stakes.
Water access is a particularly egregious instance of conflict between Emory’s stated goals and the realities of fossil fuel support. The Rollins School names Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) as one of its research areas, noting that water insecurity “disproportionately impacts the urban and rural poor, as well as women and girls.” This is entirely true—but research on water insecurity funded with profits from the industries that exacerbate water insecurity is at best hypocritical and at worst counterproductive. Emory clearly benefits from the spoils of carbon extraction. Perhaps its lethargy in addressing the core contradictions of its endowment is due to Emory’s relative insulation from the effects of climate change.
Through the end of the century, droughts are projected to become much more frequent in much of Central and West Africa, Central and Southeast Asia, and South America. The Middle East, Northern Europe, Eastern United States, and East Asia are all projected to see a comparatively minor increase in drought frequency. These regions have also contributed disproportionately heavily to the carbon emissions driving climate change. Similarly grim ironies could be noted with regards to future famines, ecosystem destruction, extinctions, pestilence, and human death. These are changes that are being driven by the fossil fuel companies that Emory financially supports and receives benefits from.
I anticipate that resistance to my position will be centered on two tenets—1) we don’t know Emory’s exact investments and that 2) we sacrifice some financial advantage from divesting.
Indeed, we do not know what funds Emory invests in—that is part of the problem. While universities (reasonably) shield their exact investment strategies to maintain a competitive edge in generating maximum returns, Emory should share the details of its investments with a committee consisting of trustees, faculty, staff, and students. This committee should be charged with ensuring that Emory’s investments both capitalize on market opportunities and maintain social responsibility. Our investments should be opportunistic, but they should not come to the obvious detriment of global health.
Secondly, arguing that Emory should continue to profit from fossil fuels concedes Emory’s guilt in impeding significant climate action. Emory could easily divest from fossil fuels, but it has not because fossil fuels provide a marginal financial benefit. Financial advantage is the exact reason every profit-seeking entity (individuals, families, and companies) gives to justify fossil fuel usage. It’s not that clean energy solutions don’t exist, it’s that social responsibility is second fiddle to short-term financial gain for most. Emory should be different—the endowment fund exists to serve the mission and goals of the institution and its people, not the other way around. If Emory cannot account for social responsibility in its investments, then it cedes its position as a leader in environmental and societal responsibility in the Southeast. If Emory doesn’t decide to remove its financial support from fossil fuels, who will?
Emory’s continued refusal to reveal the investments in its $6.9 billion portfolio is problematic for its suggestion that continued financial support of societally destructive fossil fuel companies is both acceptable and somehow necessary. Certainly, Emory cannot claim that it is ignorant to the perils of climate change, or that it lacks a substantial financial cushion. What, then, is the reason to continue investing in funds that contain holdings in fossil fuel extraction?
Until Emory fully divests ownership from any asset class that includes fossil fuel holdings, including all those defined by The Carbon Underground 200, it will be complicit in encouraging a phenomenon that threatens the quality of life of an entire planet. I concede that institutional endowments are complex, and that change will not come without difficult decisions. But I also find the moral imperative to be abundantly clear, and to not attempt to change is unacceptable. Emory’s pledge that it “does not currently own direct stock in public companies producing fossil fuels” is pathetic, considering that direct stock holdings account for less than 10% of its endowment. Any marginal benefit provided by the status quo is simply not worth it.
Emory, divest now.
 Page 6, https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/607932main_sheffield_et_al_drought_press_conf.pdf
 Page 22, http://www.emory.edu/president/annual-report/ar2016/2016_financials.pdf
Image courtesy of 350.org