Divestment Group Says Williams College's Climate Change Plans Fall Short

Sep 14, 2015

Williams College has announced plans to limit its carbon footprint and invest in renewable energy resources and education in an effort to battle climate change. The move comes after students, alumni and faculty called on the school to divest its endowment from top fossil fuel companies.

Williams College says it is investing up to $50 million over the next five years in efficient buildings, renewable energy projects and climate change education, aiming to achieve carbon neutrality by the end of 2020. Adam Falk is the president of the private liberal arts college in northwestern Massachusetts home to some 2,000 undergrads.

“The major place those investments would go would be into the campus infrastructure, into new buildings and making them as energy efficient as possible and into projects that will make the existing buildings more energy efficient,” Falk said. “Some of that will go into creating some new professorships around the issue of climate change maybe in science or policy.”

Falk says the education piece is the most important because Williams’ mission is to educate students who will manufacture change in the world. He says the reason the investment is described as “up to $50 million” is the college plans to invest in and buy renewable energy, costs that fluctuate.

Williams’ announcement was spurred by a petition signed by more than 500 students and alumni calling on the school to completely divest its $2.3 billion endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. That push came in December 2014 and in February more than 230 Williams faculty and staff joined the effort. But, as President Falk explains, the school is not committing to full divestment.

“Much of the endowment is invested with managers who comingle our funds with other investments and who would not take our funds if we were to put a particular screen on the companies that they can invest in,” Falk said. “It doesn’t happen to be that they invest very much in those companies, but us trying to impose that screen would mean that they would not be interested in taking our money. So we would have to invest the entire endowment in a very different way which would have an effect of depressing the returns on that endowment by tens of millions of dollars a year in our best estimation.”

As of July, Williams has no direct holdings of shares in any of the 200 companies listed in the petition, according to the college. As of 2014, the school invests $8.3 million in fossil fuel related companies. A 2002 Williams graduate and a professor of sustainable development at Appalachian State University, Brian Burke has helped to lead the divestment group.

“Obviously we’re disappointed by this decision,” Burke said. “We’ve said from the beginning that the key criterion for any college climate action has to be ‘Does this help shift the national political context in favor of meaningful climate and energy policy?’ And this plan clearly doesn’t.”

Burke says there are many valuable parts of Williams’ plans such as carbon neutrality, training students to make climate change impacts and the investments.

“The $50 million that the trustees have committed is two and a half times what Yale’s president was willing to put forward,” Burke said. “So when you look this from the perspective of the college, when you look at it from within the purple bubble, I think that this is a big step forward. But when you look at this from the perspective of climate change this leaves a lot to be desired.”

Williams is also partnering with the five Pioneer Valley colleges to look into projects that procure renewable energy. Williams is joining Smith and Amherst to support local energy and carbon reducing projects. Burke cites private foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Wallace Global Fund as leading the way in figuring out how to divest through comingled funds without ditching their investment strategies. Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz recently talked about the irony of a group bearing the name of the American oil tycoon divesting from fossil fuels.

“It’s complicated for all kinds of reasons,” Heintz said. “Comingled funds, lock up periods, diversified portfolios, but it is possible if you go at it with intention and are honest about the challenges and how long it’s going to take. We are divesting, but it’s going to take us three years to get down to zero to do it responsibly.”

Burke says he expects continued pressure for more changes and making sure the investments announced by Williams are implemented.

“We chose to work on this movement with Williams because we take a lot of pride in the institution and because we think it is the kind of place that can lead,” Burke said. “So this decision is especially disappointing because of that sense of impossibility or unwillingness to be creative and innovate.”

Click here for Williams College's full statement on the climate change action plan.