GUFF Responds to CISR’s Failure to Endorse Divestment



January 26 2015


GUFF Issues Response to the CISR’s Failure to Endorse Divestment Proposal

Today, the Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility (CISR), after over a week of deliberation regarding the divestment proposal put forward by GU Fossil Free (GUFF), has published their recommendation to the University. The CISR’s recommendation, in brief, states:

The CISR does not recommend full divestment from the 200 fossil fuel companies with the largest proven reserves, while simultaneously recognizing the “real dangers of climate change,” as well as the “broad range of moral concerns” associated with investments in fossil fuel companies.

The CISR recommends divesting from “energy companies with the worst environmental impact, least commitment to alternative energy, and least responsiveness to engagement efforts.” Over a “reasonable time period,” the primary targets of CISR’s limited divestment would be coal companies.

The CISR recommends that Georgetown “proactively engage energy companies” to alter policies which have “harmful environmental impact” through shareholder engagement.

The CISR recommends that divestment efforts at Georgetown be reviewed on an annual basis to determine their impact and efficacy, with a full review after three years. The CISR recommends the creation of a “working group” to develop formal criteria to assess the behavior of the companies in question from a moral perspective.

Lastly, the CISR recognizes and welcomes the “significant and ongoing work” that Georgetown is undertaking in regards to climate change and environmental responsibility.


GU Fossil Free’s Response

The CISR’s decision not to support full divestment is disappointing. Partial divestment is a positive first step, and while we are encouraged by the CISR’s receptiveness to divestment as a tactic, their alterations to our proposal rely on false moral distinctions between different fossil fuel companies and greatly weaken the statement that full divestment would make. Partial divestment is an insufficient tactic, and, in light of the challenges at hand, is ideologically inconsistent with the CISR’s mandate to align Georgetown’s investments with its ethical standards:


GUFF’s proposal targets the top 200 oil, gas, and coal companies, as determined by the potential carbon emissions content of their proven reserves. Our choice of this particular number is not arbitrary. While companies on this list arguably do apply varying degrees of ethical discretion to some aspects of their governance, the fact remains that not one of them will elect, of their own accord, to cease extraction operations in the foreseeable future. Divestment from only coal would effectively legitimize other fossil fuel sectors whose products pose just as severe a threat to global human rights. While we would encourage divestment from any fossil fuel companies, partial divestment does not recognize the severity of the injustices perpetuated by the sector as a whole. Further, the CISR’s provision for divestment over a “reasonable time period” leaves open the door for inaction regarding an issue for which inaction has, for too long, been the norm.

The CISR’s recommendation for ‘proactive engagement’ with fossil fuel companies in which we remain invested constitutes an unrealistic approach to effecting substantive change. As we discuss in our proposal, shareholder advocacy efforts with companies whose objectionable behavior makes up the core of their business will never bring about the kind of adjustment that urgently needs to take place. Paying heed to the Jesuit-supported principle of engagement, the CISR advocates that Georgetown become more involved with the social implication of its investments. However, a working group is unnecessary to evaluate, from a moral perspective, the behavior of fossil fuel companies. It is naive to think that fossil fuel companies will change their behaviors, even if Georgetown switches from its current passive form of shareholder engagement to a more active form. These companies’ entire business model revolves around the unethical extraction and combustion of the carbon reserves they profess to own; engaging with these companies will not change this fact. Over time, shareholder engagement has proved, and will continue to prove an ineffective form of social responsibility when it comes to fossil fuel investments (see pg. 11-14 of our proposal). Continued shareholder advocacy is tantamount to inaction in the face of imminent crisis.

GUFF, alongside CISR, supports the efforts Georgetown has made recently to increase sustainability and environmental awareness on campus. However, our objections to fossil fuel companies derive from the human rights violations and direct harms on marginalized and vulnerable communities currently associated with extraction. Moreover, the problems that these measures seek to address are rooted in the fossil fuel industry’s hegemonic political and economic clout. We cannot mount an appropriately consistent and comprehensive institutional response to this climate crisis while we continue to hold a financial stake in the success of its primary authors. Such endeavors fail, by themselves, to eliminate the moral inconsistencies of Georgetown investing in fossil fuel companies while simultaneously creating policies designed to counteract climate change.


GU Fossil Free member Annie Wang (COL ‘16) says, “I don’t think the CISR is actually recognizing the broad range of moral concerns associated with our University’s investments in fossil fuels, nor the real dangers of climate change. These require urgent and visionary action. Other schools have stepped up to the plate with such responses, but none of the CISR’s recommendations for Georgetown meets these criteria.” GU Fossil Free first-year, Theo Montgomery (SFS ‘18), added, “Full divestment represents an incredible opportunity for Georgetown to demonstrate its moral leadership in the face of grave injustice. I hope the Board is more forward-thinking and ethically-minded than this Committee.”

At the end of their recommendation, the CISR quotes Pope Francis’s 2014 address to the UN Convention on Climate Change: “The time to find global solutions is running out. We will only be able to find adequate solutions if we act together and in agreement. Hence, there is a clear, definitive and ineluctable ethical imperative to act.” The Pope further goes on to state that “the effective struggle against global warming will only be possible with a responsible collective answer, that goes beyond particular interests and behavior and is developed free of political and economic pressures.” The responsibility to action falls particularly heavily on Georgetown as an institution founded on a strong commitment to justice and a powerful voice of moral authority. In the midst of a public discourse in which inertia reigns, we hold an exceptional obligation to step forward as a model for those who would heed the Pope’s call to action. Collective responsibility entails the willingness of individual actors to exceed the narrowest interpretation of their duties, to aim higher than the watermark set by their peers. Selective divestment (e.g. from a subset of coal companies) would feed the already-prevalent narrative that a sufficient response to climate change need not target the entire fossil fuel sector. Comprehensive divestment would make Georgetown’s contribution to this conversation a substantive one–we would be the first university with a comparable endowment to make such a commitment, and in doing so we would convey the message that a status-quo response to so urgent an issue is grossly insufficient. At Georgetown we place great stock in the ideal of being first and foremost “men and women for others,” but the chariness evident in the CISR’s recommendation would suggest that this standard is of secondary importance.

We hope that members of the Board of Directors will favor a more decisive commitment to moral leadership and opt for comprehensive divestment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies across all sectors.


In solidarity,

The GU Fossil Free Coalition


A PDF version of this press release can be found here: 26Jan2015 GUFF Response to CISR Failure to Endorse Proposal

An Open Letter Regarding the CISR’s Impending Decision on GUFF’s Proposal

 Georgetown’s Moral Imperative to Fully Divest from Fossil Fuels

 An Open Letter to the Georgetown Community Regarding the CISR’s Impending Decision on GU Fossil Free’s Divestment Proposal

 This past Friday, January 16th, the Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility held a meeting to vote on GU Fossil Free’s proposal. The proposal, which calls for full divestment of Georgetown’s endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies as defined by proven carbon reserves, was publicized in August after more than a year and a half of researching, editing, and extensive dialoguing with administrators by GUFF. As of January 22nd the CISR has not made public the minutes of this meeting, their final decision on GUFF’s proposal, or a specific date of release for the result of their vote. We write this letter to communicate our expectations regarding CISR’s decision, in light of the CISR’s role in ensuring that Georgetown fully carries out its responsibilities to social justice and the common good.

In our proposal, GUFF thoroughly defends the position that investing in the identified companies results in substantial social injury to this country’s and the world’s most vulnerable populations by virtue of the ongoing harms directly associated with the extraction of coal, oil, and gas, and by virtue of the threats to livelihoods and well-being posed by global climate change. Considering the systemic nature of our society’s dependence on fossil fuels, it is ineffective, debilitating, and complacent to claim that divestment is ‘hypocritical’ since we continue to rely on fossil fuel energy and products. Nevertheless, it is morally inconsistent for the university to live out its values by promoting social justice and the common good while simultaneously perpetuating injustice by way of its investments.

In advance of the release of the CISR’s recommendations, we would like to publicly clarify the rationale behind our proposal, and in particular the critical role of comprehensive divestment as a tactic. A number of alternatives to this proposal have been volunteered over the course of our campaign, and we want to express why we view these courses of action as inadequate. Specifically, we contend that none of the following recommendations would be independently or jointly sufficient in fulfilling our responsibilities with appropriate urgency and efficacy:

  • “Strategic” Shareholder Engagement: According to the principles set forth by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which the CISR uses as a guideline, shareholder engagement is the appropriate response when it comes to companies involved only partially or tangentially in objectionable activities. As we note in our proposal, however: 1) the financial bottom-lines of these companies is almost exclusively—if not entirely—dependent on the continued and unabated extraction of the fossil fuel reserves to which they lay claim, directly implicating them in the damages we seek to address; and 2) the harms associated with fossil fuels are both too great and too urgent to be adequately addressed by shareholder advocacy, as evidenced by the historical ineffectiveness of this tactic with regard to practices so central to a company’s operation and the morally dubious motivations of shareholders other than Georgetown University. (See pp. 11-14 of our proposal).

  • Partial Divestment from Worst Actors: Our proposal only identifies 200 companies from which Georgetown has a clear moral imperative to divest. These are the worst actors with regards to the kind of social injury we have presented. Consider, for example, that together the carbon reserves of these companies, were they to be fully utilized, would correspond to an increase in temperature five times beyond the limit at which warming effects would be catastrophic (see pg. 6-7 of our proposal). Any moral distinction the CISR may draw between coal and other fossil fuels, for instance, regarding the above objectionable practices would thus be a false one. Certainly, the corporate governance of different companies on this list reflects somewhat different sets of moral priorities, but the fact remains that every one of them holds vast fossil fuel reserves and not a single one will not of its own volition abate its extraction operations in the foreseeable future. Further narrowing this list would amount to consciously condoning injustice. In fact, throughout the process of developing and putting forth a proposal for divestment, it has come to light that Georgetown does not have any moral filters on its investments. This means that the Investment Office does not have any official policy that it relays to the managers of Georgetown’s investments to hold them accountable to the values we uphold as a university. With the end goal of aligning our investment practices with our moral responsibilities, then, the CISR should, at the very least, recommend what is already a highly targeted divestment proposal of the identified 200 companies—if not go further by recommending additional ethical screens.

  • Enhanced Sustainability Initiatives at Georgetown: Georgetown already has in place a range of environmental and social justice initiatives, including a commitment to cut carbon emissions by 50% by 2020 from 2006 levels and a newly expanded Office of Sustainability. While more intensive efforts to minimize our negative environmental impact would certainly be welcome, as would efforts to further contribute to relevant academic research, they would do nothing to address the undeniable moral inconsistency of continuing to pour money into social and environmental  injustice—into the companies that bear such large responsibility for the carbon levels Georgetown’s policies are formulated to mitigate—thereby generating conflicting financial and ethical interests. Georgetown has a laudable record in sustainable consumption and commitment to environmental scholarship, but the urgency of this issue necessitates a comprehensive institutional response of which financial disengagement from fossil fuels is an absolutely crucial component.

    After considering the above scenarios, and the possible arguments which might be used to justify them,it is clear that full divestment from the 200 companies identified by GUFF is the way forward for Georgetown University. This is the appropriate response if the Georgetown community is to live up to the moral responsibilities we have towards our fellow human beings, especially those amongst us who are the most vulnerable. As we argue in our proposal, divestment offers Georgetown the opportunity to live up to its status as a moral leader by working with others to influence public opinion and eventually, change the shape of the energy economy. Divestment in itself is a major and ongoing contribution to the broader dialogue concerning a just and sustainable transition to a renewable energy future.

    Kicking a can down the road only works as long as there’s still road left. Unfortunately, we have reached a point at which postponement of action is equivalent to inaction. As a Jesuit university, and as an institution of academic and moral distinction, the time has come to fully live up to the values we have professed to support for over 200 years. As students and members of the Georgetown community, we all have a stake in the moral eminence of the university.

    We close this letter by recalling Pope Francis I’s call to action in Evangelii Gaudium (2013): “Money must serve, not rule! … the rich must help, respect, and promote the poor. I exhort you to generous solidarity and the return of economics and finance to an ethical approach which favors human beings.”

    In solidarity,

    The GU Fossil Free Coalition


    A PDF version of this letter can be found here: 21Jan2015 GUFF open letter RE CISR vote.