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Divest Carleton from fossil fuels to save our school

For weeks now, five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history have been burning, turning skies orange across the state. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season is already breaking records, with an unprecedented thirteen tropical storms named before September. 

In August, Iowa’s crops were devastated by a 100 mph derecho windstorm that flattened 10 million acres, followed by a subsequent drought. And of course, throughout the country, 200,000 people have died from a raging pandemic that has shut down the economy, cancelled sports and most other activities, and changed the way that our own Carleton College educates its students.

These disasters are not unrelated. California fires are increasing because of hotter temperatures and longer dry seasons. Stronger and more numerous hurricanes are fueled by higher sea surface temperatures. While the link between derechos and climate change is not yet clear, warmer temperatures are predicted to increasingly threaten crops across the Midwest, leading to more frequent spring flooding events and greater summer droughts and heat waves. Our risk for global pandemics grows as climate change threatens biodiversity, expands the habitats of disease-bearing insects, and melts frozen lands where ancient viruses could be released.

 Some Carls might think that our school will be safe from these sorts of disasters, that its mission to educate is not at risk. If the past year has taught us anything, it should be that we are not immune. 

A pandemic is capable of shutting down much of the school and impacting its ability to collect full tuition. What happens when increasing wildfires darken Carleton’s skies, sending smoke that sickens its students and ash drifting across the chapel roof? 

What happens when Northfield floods over and over, harming the local economy and the bucolic small town milieu that Carleton sells so well? Climate change does impact Carls, both in Northfield and in their own hometowns. It will limit the school’s pool of applicants, as rolling catastrophes put higher education out of reach for more and more young people. It will increase racial and economic inequalities, as vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by ecological disasters. It will even hurt the endowment, as the world economy suffers through heat waves, floods, hurricanes, fires, droughts, diseases, famines, refugee displacements, and wars.

The only way to mitigate the effects of global climate change is to transition our society away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. This is the goal of the Divest Carleton movement. Not just to cease using fossil fuels ourselves, but to encourage a nationwide shift through our refusal to fund and profit from the oil and gas industries. As a highly regarded institution with a nearly billion dollar endowment, Carleton has a unique opportunity and obligation to build on the growing consensus that all responsible organizations must end associations with fossil fuels.

In the spring of 2019, The Carletonian published a letter detailing the reasoning behind seven U.S. News-ranked liberal arts colleges divesting from fossil fuels. Since then, the movement has continued to build momentum. Worldwide, 1,244 institutions with combined managed assets of $14.48 trillion have made divestment commitments. Last October, Smith College announced that it would divest its endowment, and this March, Wesleyan University joined them. 

In addition to these Carleton liberal arts competitors, several major universities have made their own pledges, including the University of California, whose endowment and pension totals $126 billion; the D.C. schools Georgetown and George Washington University; the U.K.’s world-renowned Oxford University and Cambridge University; and two Ivy League schools, Brown University and Cornell University.

 As more colleges and universities divest, and as the climate crisis worsens, prospective students will be paying attention to the decisions that Carleton makes.

It’s good marketing to let them know that we care about their future, that we aren’t actively making money off the industries that are destroying their farms and their homes, their backyards and their favorite beaches.

 But we shouldn’t need a PR incentive to divest. Nor do we need an ethical one—though the moral imperative is strong. All we need to do is ask ourselves: do we want Carleton to thrive?

 The Senate of the Carleton Student Association (CSA) voted unanimously this past May in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Over 8% of the entire alumni population has signed a petition asking Carleton to divest. Including alumni, students, and some family and friends, 2,818 have signed. It’s time for the administration to finally listen to its students and alumni, who only want what’s best for our school. 

It’s time to divest Carleton from fossil fuels.


    • Amelia Broman Amelia Broman October 4, 2020

      Updated yesterday to include this, thanks!

      • Rebecca Hahn Rebecca Hahn October 4, 2020

        Thank you!

  1. Aashutosha Lele Aashutosha Lele October 3, 2020

    This article makes the excellent point that divestment isn’t about political posturing, as Carleton’s administration often dismisses it. It’s about making education, Carleton included, truly accessible to everyone, not just those who can pay their way out of floods and wildfires. By not divesting, Carleton is being exclusionary, not “apolitical.”


    Carleton should divest from divest from fossil fuels because that would be the right thing to do, and especially now as we see the ever increasingly harmful effect that climate change is having on our planet, it should realize that it needs to act now.

  3. Robert Traer Robert Traer October 3, 2020

    I contributed to Carleton for 45 years after graduating in 1965 but ended my contributions when Carleton refused to divest from fossil fuel equities. I wrote to the President and the Board, urging ethical leadership by the college, but to no avail. Therefore, despite the high academic qualifications of the college, I no longer recommend it to aspiring high school students. In the environmental ethics course that I continue to teach university students, I identify individuals, governments, and private institutions that have had the ethical concern and courage to divest from fossil fuels. I regret that the investment decisions by the Carleton administration and Board do not meet the ethical standard of being exemplary.

  4. Dimitri S. '15 Dimitri S. '15 October 3, 2020

    I fear that Carleton is losing the opportunity to be a leader in the fight against climate change. Though I applaud the college’s investment in wind power, increased efficiency, and geothermal pumps, I wish those in charge would realize that a crisis as great as this requires us to take all the actions within our power. This includes the choice between investing in the destructive status quo or a future we might thrive in. The moral, ecological, and financial logic is there. I implore the administration and Board of Trustees to respond to the moment and use Carleton’s financial and cultural capital in support of climate justice. The college’s reputation is at stake – with alumni, prospective students and families, and the broader community. Be the positive and responsible change we so desperately seek in this crumbling world.

  5. Ben Stiegler Ben Stiegler October 3, 2020

    Carleton’s reluctance to divest over the 20 or so years I’ve been hearing about it strikes me as markedly out of sync with Carleton values. In my student years, Ian Barbour taught us about evaluating the social and moral costs to using a technology – whether fossil fuels, nuclear power, or digital surveillance. The sense I’ve had is that the endowment management has somehow been firmly opposed to divesture. With the recent transition to Carleton hiring its own endowment management team, today is a great moment to take a principled stand for the planet and the self-interest of Carleton by divesting fossil fuel investments. Here in Oakland, environmental care is also racial justice, as the diesel fumes spewed by the thousands of large trucks that service the Port of Oakland each week spew disproportionately on Black neighborhoods which surround the port.

    Stopping global warming is not going to be possible for very much longer. While much of Carleton’s energy profile is admirable, let’s take our lumps financially if needed and get out of the fossil fuel business today. Our children and grandchildren deserve a habitable earth, which we’ve had the privilege of using and stewarding.

  6. Anna Persmark Anna Persmark October 3, 2020

    Thanks for writing this piece! I’d love to see Carleton divest and use its funds in a way that aligns more with its stated values.

  7. Fossil fuel divestment is long overdue at Carleton. Since the Trustees first formally opposed divestment in 2013, the science of climate change has become more alarming, the impacts more extreme, and the moral failings of the fossil fuel industry more clear. We now know that this is an industry that has trampled on the needs and wants of front line communities, funded climate change deniers, and continued to search for and dig more fossil fuels even as the need to move to a low carbon economy becomes absolutely clear. College constituencies have made their support for divestment clear and, in 2015, the College’s own Carleton Responsible Investment Committee (CRIC) unanimously recommended divestment. The Trustees refused. Now, for the sake of the College and the planet, Carleton must divest from fossil fuels and invest in the clean energy economy.

  8. Nathanael Nerode, Carleton Class of 2000 Nathanael Nerode, Carleton Class of 2000 October 5, 2020

    It is already known that fossil fuels are financial losers. Carleton has already gotten rid of most of its poor investments in fossil fuel companies. The College has has nothing to lose and everything to gain by officially prohibiting investment in them. Why are Carleton’s Trustees insistent on making themselves and the College look bad? Since the College *must* divest in order to be financially responsible, and has already largely divested, why not make a public statement committing to it and gain some positive publicity, rather than endless bad publicity from an insistence on “keeping their options open”? Carleton doesn’t “keep their options open” to invest in professional crime syndicates, slave labor operations, or murder gangs, even though those might well be much more profitable than money-losing fossil fuels. Refusing to commit to divestment is terrible publicity.

  9. Theo Stroomer Theo Stroomer October 5, 2020

    Carleton needs to choose a new president who supports divestment. This is such an obvious thing for institutions of higher learning to do. It is shameful that Carleton has not been a leader on it so far.

  10. Steve Diller Steve Diller October 6, 2020

    I seem to recall the College stonewalling on divestment from South Africa, too. While I can appreciate a broad argument against allowing political issues to drive investment decisions, we’re at a point in which this shouldn’t even be seen as political, just a choice between destruction of our ecosystems and care for our world. What’s the point of a liberal arts education if it doesn’t lead to enlightened behavior in the world?

  11. Ted Myers Ted Myers October 22, 2020

    The Carleton Board of Trustees needs to give this issue a fresh look as soon as possible. The momentum is with divestment and increased attention to global warming on an international scale. I hate to see Carleton behind the curve on an issue of this magnitude and urgency. Act Now!

  12. Dave reiner '88 Dave reiner '88 October 26, 2021

    I bring some historical perspective and I see that Steve Diller beat me to it. Carleton failed to divest from Apartheid South Africa back in the 80s, putting us well behind the curve of US small liberal arts colleges. Here’s the lesson from history: when enough institutions divested, the economic and cultural pressure on South Africa forced the Apartheid regime to dismantle itself. To my shame, Carleton was not part of that.

    The same arguments were made then as now: it is political and we don’t do that. True, in the sense that all human endeavors are political. But couldn’t the same have been said about Jim Crow and segregation? Issues of diversity, equity and inclusion? How can a school like Carleton justify being on the wrong side of history, time after time?

    The Carleton I attended was always telling us that we were future leaders. Yet clearly the College itself was failing to lead on the issues of the day, and is doing so again. (And don’t get me started on violence against women on campus, an issue on which peers of mine are STILL working). I can’t help but feel that Carleton is staid and even reactionary on certain issues. When young, I thought that Carleton transcended its location in the corn fields of Minnesota. But with the benefit of 30+ years of hindsight I think maybe it is mired there.

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