Over recent years, the world has been witness to the devastating consequences of climate change. Driven by the burning of fossil fuels, this past decade became the hottest since record keeping began almost 150 years ago, and forecasts for the decades to come look dire. This is a problem that every social institution has an obligation to address, but particularly for Tufts — a university that touts a reputation for civic engagement — the fight against climate change is a test of its commitment to the principles it espouses.
Tufts took a step in the right direction on Feb. 10, when it announced a ban on direct investments in certain coal and tar sands companies. But given the gravity of climate change, we have a responsibility as students to scrutinize our university’s relationship with the environment, even when it appears to be moving in a good direction. This recent announcement from Tufts is both something to celebrate and a reminder of how much further Tufts can — and must — go.
This step by the university follows a lengthy history of student activism targeting the university’s endowment. As early as 2005, student groups were calling for the university to invest its endowment in environmentally responsible ventures and by 2012, student groups like the Responsible Endowment Collective and Tufts Divest For Our Future (now Tufts Climate Action) had formed to demand actual divestment from fossil fuels. A truly climate-conscious university would have begun divestment then, but for years, Tufts took no such action; instead, it only introduced initiatives like the Sustainability Investment Fund, which allowed donors to earmark their donations for socially responsible investments. This was not a sufficient response to the climate crisis we face. Rather than placing the onus on individual donors, Tufts had to step up.
Only in January 2020 did Tufts begin to pay much respect to divestment as a cause, when it decided to convene the Responsible Investment Advisory Group, whose recommendations eventually formed the basis for the announcement on Feb. 10. In that announcement, University President Anthony Monaco and Chair of the Board of Trustees Peter Dolan wrote in an email that the board voted to “prohibit direct investment in 120 coal and tar sands companies with the largest reserves,” along with establishing a $10 million to $25 million investment program toward climate change impact funds. These steps are certainly welcome after so many years of student action, and are a sign that tangible change is possible coming from the Tufts administration. The email went on to credit the Responsible Investment Advisory Group for its recommendations that precipitated these policy changes.
This latest act from the university is laudable, but even it does not do justice to the scale of climate change as a threat. Echoing the long-standing demands of student activists, we urge the administration to go further and pursue complete divestment from all direct and indirect holdings in the fossil fuel industry. To adequately respond to the urgency of the climate crisis, the university must continue at full speed in reducing its carbon footprint by liquidating all indirect holdings in tar sands and coal and all direct and indirect holdings in oil and gas extraction companies; this means promptly selling direct investments and externally working to influence the management of indirect investments. In keeping with Tufts’ espoused goals of being a leader among its peers in fulfilling social and environmental responsibility, the university must also shorten the timeline for reevaluating existing investments, and commit to revisiting investments within the next two years, rather than in two to five, as was originally proposed by President Monaco and Chair Dolan.
Time is of the essence. The negative repercussions of climate change are already present: Vital ecosystems and food sources are being destroyed, natural disasters are occurring at a more frequent rate and some populations are being rendered climate refugees. Students can combat this at many institutional levels, including through our local governments and state legislatures all across the country. But the institution that binds our Tufts community together is the university itself, and for the sake of that community it matters whether our university is a blight on our climate. Only when our endowment is fully divested of fossil fuels will we be able to say with any certainty that it is not.