Letter to the Editor: A true commitment to sustainability starts with divestment


Ten years ago, asking most people at Northwestern how climate change affects them personally would have gotten some pretty abstract answers. Maybe they would have expressed regret at the loss of snow on Mount Kilimanjaro or felt a pang of guilt about suffering polar bears.

But recently, climate change has begun to hit much closer to home. Talk to your friends from the Northeast about their adventures in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the “once-in-a-generation” storm that left residents across the eastern seaboard without power for a week in 2012. Or ask your friends from California about spending their summer in one of the most severe droughts in the state’s recorded history —  you’ll no longer take Lake Michigan for granted.

The fact is that our generation is the first to grow up in the age of climate change. We’re also the generation that’s going to be responsible for solving the problem.

That’s where DivestNU comes in.

NU’s endowment is a portfolio of investments that generates revenue for the University. At the end of fiscal year 2013, the endowment was approaching $8 billion. Of that, $17 million is invested in the coal industry. The problem? This industry is responsible for generating greenhouse gases and toxic emissions that are a direct cause of climate change and harms to human health.

Coal is one of the dirtiest fuel sources we use, emitting double the carbon dioxide of natural gas and increasing the pace of climate change. Additionally, coal emissions are responsible for thousands of heart attacks, asthma attacks and premature deaths in the United States. It’s even worse in developing nations: In 2012, coal pollution killed almost 700,000 people in China. This is not just an environmental issue, it’s a human rights issue.

As an esteemed academic and research institution, NU has a responsibility to take initiative in confronting climate change. We have already taken significant actions by offering classes on environmental science and policy, conducting world-class research in emerging energy technologies and investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy on campus. Shouldn’t our endowment reflect these commitments as well?

For these reasons, we believe that NU should divest from the coal industry.

Specifically, we are asking to divest from companies that produce coal at the core of their businesses or that have large fleets of coal power plants and that are unwilling or unable to change their business models.

By definition, divestment simply means to sell off investments. But it also enables reinvestment in solutions to climate change. And this action is more than economic. It affirms that NU truly values sustainability, leadership and human life.

For the past two years, DivestNU has been gaining campus-wide support. In January 2013, the Associated Student Government passed a resolution calling for the University to divest from its coal holdings and endorsed a petition containing more than 1,500 signatures from students, faculty, staff and alumni. Both of these actions were also supported by the Faculty Senate. Since then, our campaign has held regular meetings with chief investment officer Will McLean, where we have discussed the potential for coal divestment at NU.

This past July, McLean brought the discussion to the Investment Subcommittee of NU’s Board of Trustees. This group has the final say about the University’s coal divestment and in the past has agreed to divest from Sudan and South Africa. At that meeting, the Subcommittee was not convinced that coal divestment was the right move for NU.

However, the Trustees have not yet heard the voice of the students. And as the primary beneficiaries of the endowment, we should have a say in how our University invests its money. This Thursday, DivestNU members will be meeting with part of the Investment Subcommittee. We hope that by talking face-to-face, we can voice our position and our passion, demonstrating how important this issue is for the whole NU community.

This meeting is a step in the right direction, but in order to be successful, we as students need to show the Board of Trustees that climate change is an issue that we care about because it will affect our lives. We want to breathe clean air. We want to protect the world’s coastal cities. We want enough food and water. And we want this planet, and everyone on it, to thrive.

If you agree that NU has a responsibility to take action against climate change, sign our petition. Additionally, we invite you to share this letter on social media with #divestnorthwestern. Now is your chance to have a say in how NU uses its endowment, and it’s an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.


The DivestNU Team

David Snydacker

Alex Dolgonos

Alex Kirschner

Amanda Hermans

Andrew Carlson

Jonathan Kamel

Noah Becker

Kerry McFadden

Stephanie Garcia

Aimee Arvayo

Scott Brown

Christina Cilento

Allison Valentijn

Natalie Ward

Andrew Crane

Justine Hung

Taran Lichtenberger