Gonzaga University’s Board of Trustees released today a statement outlining decisions it has made related to the environmental, social, and governance (ESG) criteria that it uses for investing its $230 million dollar endowment. The Fossil Free Gonzaga Campaign applauds the University’s decision to begin developing plans to make its ESG endowment policy meaningful and to set aside a small pot of money to do “impact investing” that will support the University’s endowment.
Though meaningful, the steps the University has now pledged to take should have been taken decades ago when it adopted its ESG policy and they are not enough today. Indeed, it is rather surprising to hear that the University wasn’t already taking these steps. The implication is that it has long had a policy that has been little more than window dressing. That the ESG policy is now being given substantive meaning and will be used to inform decision-making is positive, but a minimal bar. It gets us to where we should have been some twenty years ago.
In the end, the minimal steps being taken are neither adequate to the challenges we confront, nor are they consistent with our core mission values. And doing minimal impact investing does not absolve of us the responsibility to end our attempts to profit from the sale of the substances fueling climate change and harming the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. For instance, if it was discovered that the company supplying the athletic apparel for Gonzaga basketball teams was engaging in sweatshop labor practices in developing countries, it would not be sufficient to set aside a small pot of money to fund job training programs in these countries.
Regrettably, the Board’s response to the climate crisis is similar to its ultimately ill-fated decision in the 1980s related to Apartheid. When asked by Gonzaga’s students to divest of the companies doing business in the racist Apartheid regime of South Africa, Gonzaga’s Board of Trustees voted against divestment and instead funded several scholarships for South African students. Gonzaga students at the time rightly rejected this as an insufficient step. Only after an additional two years of student campaigning did the Board of Trustees reverse their decision and agree to divest its endowment.
It would seem that, thirty years later, Gonzaga’s Board of Trustees is taking a similar approach to fossil fuel divestment, pursing impact investing and gesturing at ESG considerations, while rejecting the core issue at hand. The great Apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an Gonzaga University honorary doctoral recipient, makes a compelling comparison of these two divestment movements:
“Just as we argued in the 1980s that those who conducted business with Apartheid South Africa were aiding and abetting an immoral system, today we say no one should profit from the rising temperatures, seas, and human suffering caused by the burning of fossil fuels. We can no longer continue feeding our addiction to fossil fuels as if there is no tomorrow. For there will be no tomorrow.”
Archbishop Tutu is not being hyperbolic about the state of our climate. In October of this year the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that we have barely 12 years in order to move away from fossil fuels, if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change that will decimate the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet. This report was followed by another last month (November) from own American government (the National Climate Assessment), which was not only consistent with the UN report, it put a price tag of trillions of dollars (10% of GDP by the end of the century) if we fail to act on climate change.
Despite these warnings, scientists reported this week that, after several years of declining, greenhouse gas emissions are higher than ever before. It is unfathomable that Gonzaga University, which says that it prides itself on care for the planet and the vulnerable would seek to continue to profit from the sale of the very substances driving us off the climate cliff. The students, faculty, and staff have spoken with one voice in favor of aligning our endowment investments with our core mission values. We believe in our mission. As with the students in the 1980s, we will continue to work to persuade our Board of Trustees of the fierce moral urgency of the climate crisis. As we see with our sister Jesuit school, Seattle University, it is entirely possible to commit to fossil fuel divestment. What is lacking is not the means, but the will.
“It is not enough to balance, in the medium term, the protection of nature with financial gain, or the preservation of the environment with progress. Halfway measures simply delay the inevitable disaster.”
The physics is clear, we must keep at least 80% of all known fossil fuels in the ground, if we have any hope of staving off catastrophe. We agree with the students of Gonzaga that our shared mission requires more of us. We now take great pride in being on the right side of history with respect to Apartheid divestment. Future generations will rightly judge what we do today. If we do not change course, that will be a very harsh judgment indeed. Will Gonzaga continue on its ecocidal path and seek to profit from the destruction of the planet and the harm of the poor? Or will Gonzaga commit to developing a plan to gradually and meaningfully divest our endowment of fossil fuels ?
Brian G. Henning, Ph.D.
Faculty Campaign Leader, Fossil Free Gonzaga