Dear Board of Trustees and ESG Task force members,
In October of last school year, I had the pleasure of attending a student dinner with members of the Board of Regents and the Board of Trustees. I would like to thank you all for taking the time to be there because, as a student, it was nice to finally have a few faces and names to associate with the Board of Trustees, a group we often hear about but rarely have the opportunity to interact with. At the dinner, chairman Scott Morris thanked students for our involvement with the university and encouraged us to come to the boards with any questions, requests, or concerns that we may have in regarding the university. That is why I am writing to you today. As a senior environmental studies and psychology student with multiple science, environmental, and ethics classes now under my belt I am deeply concerned by what is arguably the biggest problem facing my generation: Climate change. While this issue is complex, a key component of the problem is the rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide which primarily occurs from the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, coal, and natural gas. To avoid catastrophic climate change, the majority of fossil fuel reserves that we have access to must not be consumed. Aside from causing harm to the planet, the effects of climate change brought on by the burning of fossil fuels harm the poor and the vulnerable disproportionately as they are the least able to adapt to severe storms and environmental changes. That is why I am deeply troubled by the investment of Gonzaga University’s endowment in fossil fuel stocks. Institutions of higher education, particularly Jesuit universities such as our own, are grounded in solidarity, social justice, service to others, and commitment to humanistic education on the natural and social world through the sciences. As a Jesuit University committed to said values, we are morally and ethically obligated to divest our endowments from all fossil fuel stocks because to profit from their returns is to profit from the harm of others and our shared planet, which grossly contradicts our mission.
The Gonzaga University mission statement alone provides sufficient reasoning as to why we should divest our holdings from fossil fuel stocks. The mission statement begins by stating that the university, “Educates students for lives of leadership and service for the common good,” (Gonzaga). While the common good may also mean the financial prosperity of communities, it most often refers to the health and well-being of all people. Catholic Social Teaching maintains that this includes commitment to human rights, option for the poor and vulnerable, solidarity throughout the human family, and care for creation (USCCB). The mission statement goes on to explicitly express commitment to each of these values, as well to the cultivation of ethical discernment and critical thought within students. Finally, this mission is intended to be carried out, “With responsible stewardship of our physical, financial, and human resources,” (Gonzaga). In the past, the university has sought to better uphold this mission and increase its commitment to socially responsible investing (SRI) by divesting funds from companies associated with business in South Africa, in order to dismantle the unethical system of apartheid. Recognizing that this system of racial discrimination did not align with university commitment to equality, human rights, and solidarity, students advocated for immediate divestment and, after much petitioning and debate, their requests were eventually granted. While the issue is different today, myself and many of my fellow students are now asking that the same thing be done again. Climate change may not be as immediately visible as the blatant racism associated with apartheid, but it negatively affects an even broader array of people and species. If we continue along our current trajectory, climate change will result in massive biodiversity loss, as well as increased incidence of drought, flooding, famine, and severe storms, all of which we have already begun to see. Destroying the health of the planet and displacing the most vulnerable members of the human community stands in direct opposition to our commitment to care for creation, and solidarity and social justice.
University commitment to ethical discernment within students provides additional grounds for divestment from fossil fuel companies, as much of the industry’s profits are made from unethical actions. Basic utilitarian ethics dictates that it is unethical to cause harm or suffering to any moral patient without sufficient justifiable cause. The burning of hydrocarbons by fossil fuel corporations has already increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and global surface temperatures enough to cause a rise in sea level, increased severity of storms including flooding, hurricanes and wildfires, all of which displace humans and other species alike, increased social and political unrest due to heightened water scarcity, and species extinction due to changing climate and habitat loss, (Houghton). Each of these outcomes either directly or indirectly causes harm to people across the globe. Additionally, reparations for the harm that results from the pollution caused by fossil fuels companies are rarely, if ever, made as such costs are externalized by the companies in effort to increase their own profit margins. Externalizing costs of pollution, including the costs to human health, means the fossil fuel corporations are able to avoid taking responsibility for their actions and, thus, cannot be held accountable. Author and activist Bill McKibben is often credited with beginning fossil fuel divestment campaign and has, now famously, been quoted saying that,
“If it is wrong to wreak the climate, then it is wrong to profit from the wreckage,” (McKibben, 2013).
This is exactly what fossil fuel corporations do, and by investing in their stocks our university ends up profiting from the wreckage as well. It is absurdly hypocritical to maintain that Gonzaga is cultivating ethical discernment in students while simultaneously supplementing the cost of their education with money gained from investments in corporations that are engaged in unethical actions.
Gonzaga University is further obligated to divest from fossil fuel stocks as it is morally inconsistent to assert that we stand in solidarity with the poor and vulnerable while simultaneously profiting from investments in corporations whose actions cause them a disproportionate amount of harm. While industrialized nations will be able to use technology and wealth to adjust to changing environmental conditions and can afford to rebuild after devastation by natural disasters, developing nations will not have the same luxury. In his Encyclical, Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis describes how many of the poor throughout the world live in areas that are the most drastically affected by climate change and rely heavily on the natural environment for subsistence through hunting, gathering, and agriculture. As a result, destruction of ecosystems severely impacts the health and livelihood of vulnerable communities within the affected area. Pope Francis elaborates on this by saying,
They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. For example, changes in climate, to which animals and plants cannot adapt, lead them to migrate; this in turn affects the livelihood of the poor, who are then forced to leave their homes, with great uncertainty for their future and that of their children. There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation.
If racial segregation and discrimination provided enough ground for divestment in the past, surely contributing to the direct physical, social, and economic harm of entire communities across the globe provides enough ground to divest from fossil fuel companies today. Not divesting from institutions that are causing such environmental degradation also says that we are indifferent to the suffering of our human brothers and sisters. It is not enough to simply make charitable contributions. To be truly committed to solidarity with the poor and vulnerable we must work for solutions that will deconstruct the systems that cause them harm in the first place, instead of,
“Masking the problems or concealing their symptoms,” (Francis).
Divesting from fossil fuel stocks is an important step in achieving this goal and shows that Gonzaga is truly committed to the values that it professes.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, Gonzaga University is morally obligated to divest its endowment from fossil fuel stocks because care for the planet is explicitly included in our mission statement. It is known that the burning of hydrocarbon fuels releases excessive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, and it is known that increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2 results in the “greenhouse effect,” causing increased average global surface temperatures. Failure to uphold this environmental ethic that we have committed ourselves to ultimately places the university in a state of moral inconsistency. In fact, since the industrial revolution, the burning of fossil fuels has, “Increased the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere by more than one-third, from around 280 ppm in 1700 to more than 400 ppm in 2014,” (Henning). Additionally, climate scientists estimate that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would need to remain below 400ppm to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius for this century (Houghton). Beyond two degrees of warming scientists predict that crops will become less productive, the number of people living in severely stressed river basins will double, sea levels will rise by at least 3 ft., coastal wetlands important for flood control will be lost, severity of storms will increase with each additional degree, and roughly 30% of known species will become extinct (Houghton). We have already observed this directly throughout the past year. Abnormally heavy rains and snowfall caused deadly avalanches in Afghanistan, severe flooding in Peru, China, South East Asia and Sri Lanka, landslides in Sierra Leon, Columbia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Unusually warm ocean temperatures created cyclones that battered communities in Zimbabwe and throughout the Southern Hemisphere. They also caused the devastating hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the latter two being category five storms that caused an estimated $160 billion dollars in damages and 210 fatalities (Duncan). Abnormally dry and hot conditions throughout the western United States has led to an increase in the number of large forest fires, many of which have occurred at the urban interface. This year, to date, there have been 49,032 separate forest fires in the United States and roughly 8,446,055 acres have been burned. Even with unseasonably early snow beginning to fall throughout the west, 23 large fires remain uncontained (NIFC). If we are to have any hope of decreasing the frequency and severity of such natural disasters, we must make serious efforts to reduce our carbon emissions. To keep the average global surface temperature below 2 degrees Celsius of warming, we must keep at least 80% of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground (McKibben, 2016). To continue to invest in fossil fuel corporations is to invest in the exploitation of these reserves and all the negative effects that doing so will inevitably cause. Divesting the university endowment is absolutely necessary to avoid moral inconsistency and uphold our environmental ethic of promoting care for the planet.
Gonzaga University prides itself on community and cultivating a student body that is committed to service for the common good. The university mission statement dictates our commitment to Catholic Social Teachings and is implemented into nearly every aspect of curriculum. However, Gonzaga contradicts its own commitment to said values by investing a portion of its endowment into fossil fuel stock. Fossil fuel corporations cause direct harm to our shared environment, and the people most dependent upon it, by burning hydrocarbon fuels. How can we as a Jesuit institution, which mandates that students take philosophy courses such as critical thinking and ethics, knowingly invest into corporations that are hurting our world in such drastic ways? As long as Gonzaga has funds invested in hydrocarbon stocks the university remains hypocritical. To outwardly express commitment to cultivating certain values within students and simultaneously engage in contradictory behavior is unethical and woefully inconsistent. With that in mind, my fellow students and I implore that members of the Board of Trustees and the ESG task force take immediate action to begin divesting Gonzaga University’s endowment from all fossil fuel stocks, and cease any further investments. Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and I hope and pray that you carefully consider this request.
Johnna C. Coughlin
Class of 2017
Duncan, Scott. “World weatherwatch: hurricanes, wildfires – and early snow.” The Guardian. September 24, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017.
Francis, Pope. Laudato si: On care for our common home. Our Sunday Visitor, 2015.
“Gonzaga University Mission Statement.” Issuu. Gonzaga University Office of Mission, Feb. 2013. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.
Henning, Brian G. “Understanding the Science of Climate Change.” Riders in the Storm: Ethics in an Age of Climate Change. N.p.: Anselm Academic, 2015. 57. Print.
Houghton, John Theodore. Global Warming: The Complete Briefing. Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2015. Print.
McKibben, Bill. “Bill McKibben’s Speech at the Sophie Prize Awards Ceremony, Oslo, Norway.” Sophie Prize Awards Ceremony. Oslo, Norway. 2013. Speech.
McKibben, Bill. “Why We Need to Keep 80% of Fossil Fuels in the Ground.” 350.org. 350.org, 15 Feb. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.
National Interagency Fire Center. September 26, 2017. Accessed September 28, 2017. https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm
USCCB. “Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching.” Seven Themes of Catholic Social Teaching. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.