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.

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