Williams Sets an Example

On September 10, 2015, Williams College announced its intentions to address climate change through a number of targets, including carbon neutrality by 2020 and investment in sustainable companies, projects and technologies. Colgate announced its commitment six years ago to carbon neutrality by 2019 through the signing of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and outlined its plan to do so through the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan. 

The plan targets carbon neutrality through changes in many different facets of campus life and infrastructure. It includes improvements in the energy use of campus buildings, more local dining options and waste minimization. It also includes the purchase of renewable energy credits, which will help offset carbon emitted by Colgate. 

Williams’ and Colgate’s decisions to commit to carbon neutrality grew out of very different student movements. While Colgate’s 2009 commitment to ACUPCC came after student pressure, Williams’ September announcement followed a proposal from the community and a campus-wide vote asking for the college to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment is getting rid of stocks, bonds or investments that are unethical or morally ambiguous. This implicates the fossil fuel industry as a direct contributor to climate change. 

Williams will not divest, but its September announcement highlights a spectrum of action that can be taken to monetarily fight climate change. Williams has dedicated $50 million over the next five years to sustainable investment both on and off campus. It will also allow donors to direct annual gifts to a sustainability fund and employees to invest their retirement plans in sustainable technologies.  

As a Colgate donor, you can give money to the Sustainability Fund. But Williams’ recent announcement has gone further. Williams indicated that it will specifically invest money with money managers devoted to sustainable industry, and publically announced the reasons why it is not feasible for them to divest. On the spectrum of sustainability in institutions of higher education, it can be argued that Williams has moved past Colgate by involving its endowment in the movement. 

From an investment standpoint, Williams and Colgate have similarities, and thus Williams’ decision to invest, rather than divest, may be applicable to Colgate. Both possess no direct holdings in any companies, but instead have commingled investment funds. Because of this, Williams believes that choosing to divest would not have any political or economic sway on the fossil fuel industry, but that investing on campus and in new sustainability funds emphasizes its importance. 

Additionally, divestment would force both to change their overall investment strategy, including the managers that control their funds. Williams also claims that the entire process of divesting would result in an alleged upfront cost of $75 million, and a projected decrease in investment returns of up to $10 million per year.

In light of all of this, a Williams junior describes the school’s announcement as hollow, as there is not a limit on how many energy credits will be bought versus actual changes on campus.

While the Williams’ announcement has resulted in discontent from the community of students and others working on the divestment campaign, it may serve as a launching point for sustainability here at Colgate.