Phillipian Commentary: Letter to the Editor

To the Editor: 

I enjoyed the recent letters from William Holland ’69 and Alexander McHale ’09. The fossil fuel divestment question is an interesting one.

Andover should divest, of course. At worst, it will do nothing. Our more than one-billion-dollar endowment privileges us, but it’s a minnow in the global ocean of institutional capital. Fossil fuel companies won’t miss us, or even notice that we’re gone.

At best, divestment may nudge others to follow along. This is an encouraging prospect. But research suggests that divestment probably won’t do much, and we should acknowledge that. Still, who knows how big the snowball could get, right? It’s worth a shot. Our beginnings never know our ends.

After all, divestment likely won’t impair the endowment’s returns. So, we shouldn’t miss fossil fuels either.

Setting aside the very real importance of the choice as a gesture alone, these are decent (but flawed) arguments in favor of divestment as a climate mitigation tool. They’re not perfect. But despite the faults, the counterarguments against divestment are much, much weaker.

Some of them are valid. Divestment will be complicated, for instance. Fiduciary duty rules exist for a reason. Fossil fuel exposure may exist through multiple layers of complex partial ownership. It’s tricky to take the milk out of a cup of coffee once it’s already stirred in. Administrative hurdles, though, can be overcome. Other schools have supplied us with helpful precedents.

The other points against divestment don’t need to be taken too seriously. Highlighting U.S. energy independence and costly wars, for example, is interesting. Fossil fuels are not required for energy independence, and energy independence is certainly not required to have peace. We shouldn’t promote oil investment by suggesting war as the alternative. This is dangerous, and logically wrong.

Similarly, using the term “our strategy” to refer to American strategy is troubling. The world flags displayed publicly on campus weren’t put there by accident. The Andover community is global. Our interest in climate is a natural extension of this fact.

Last, to say that the endowment is not a political tool ignores history.

Anyway, we can argue about divestment if we want. But I’d rather zoom out. The actual questions we’re circling around are: what can, and should, Andover do about climate change?

The answer to both is: a lot. Andover started long ago, unsurprisingly. Climate-focused classes are on offer. Science teachers have hosted talks for years. The Oliver Wendell Holmes Library (OWHL) has invited a series of external speakers in the form of Climate Cafes. And Eli Newell ’20 was totally on point with his push to have climate change play a more substantial role in the curriculum.

Each of these efforts should be supported, expanded, improved, and publicized. Those involved should coordinate.

Our role as fossil fuel shareholders is worth discussing, even if our role as customers is the real problem to be solved. For the sake of moving on to bigger and more urgent climate issues, let’s divest, or craft a plan to. I’d risk a few basis points for a step forward, even just a symbolic one.

Conor McKinnon ’08