In Face of “Grave Threat” of Climate Change, Committee Recommends Formation of New Committee: CDCJ’s Response to the ACSRI

November 20, 2015

Nikita Perumal,


Yesterday, when the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing (ACSRI) published its rejection to the proposal by Columbia Divest for Climate Justice (CDCJ) for divestment of Columbia’s endowment from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies, we weren’t exactly surprised. We, the organizers of CDCJ, have been engaging with ACSRI for roughly three years now. We have been met with frequently postponed meetings, open condescension, and a refusal to accept the well-researched support for divestment from the top 200 companies.

The bottomline is that the members of the ACSRI have not been doing their jobs. Their charter states, “The Committee's purpose is to advise the University Trustees on ethical and social issues that arise in the management of the investments in the University's endowment.” However, instead of evaluating whether it is moral to be invested in an industry that is perpetuating climate change for profit with no intention to stop, they have been asking themselves what kind of proposal they can put forth that would be accepted by the Board of Trustees. In doing so, Chair Jeffrey Gordon and the rest of the ACSRI have demonstrated a devastating lack of courage. To stand up to the most profitable industry in the history of the world, we all need our institutions and our committees to be headed by those willing to take bold action for what is moral, rather than what is easy.

Upon examination of their report, it is clear that ACSRI’s own recommendations in place of full fossil fuel divestment are grossly insufficient. Here are some of the critical reasons:

For one, ACSRI objects to the “narrow” lens of divestment, as it “would be undertaken solely as a matter of symbolic speech.” The fact is, symbolic politics can have, and have had, an enormous impact in enacting political change. Divestment was instrumental in ending South African apartheid and discrediting the Big Tobacco industry, and ACSRI itself recommended Columbia’s divestment from the private prison industry earlier this year. Why ACSRI has chosen to question the very tactic that it endorsed as effective just eight months ago is markedly unclear.

And while symbolism is powerful, we have to get the symbolism right. The science makes it clear that an end to coal would not keep us within 2°C of warming – we must leave the majority of all fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we are to ensure a stable climate system. Partial divestment, such as divesting from coal, sends the wrong message about the scale of the change that we need.

Furthermore, this is the fastest growing divestment movement in history, and the contribution Columbia might have made to this movement would have been enormous–particularly in anticipation of COP-21 in Paris. ACSRI, however, completely disregards the massive mobilization of civil society members and international leaders who have coalesced around the divestment movement. Rather, they examine how other Ivy League schools have acted–not realizing that Columbia could be a leader amongst the Ivies.

Instead, ACSRI–literally a committee that has been thinking about climate change for two years–has proposed to create a new committee to further think about climate change. While research on climate adaptation and renewable technology is certainly necessary, all of these efforts are actively obstructed by the fossil fuel industry in the political sphere and by the concrete reality of increasing emissions being pumped into the atmosphere. It is precisely this political reality that divestment would help dismantle.  

ACSRI notes in its response that it chose to divest from private prisons because the business model of the private prison industry is “inconsistent with the University’s mission and values.” The committee goes on to question, however, if the business model of fossil fuel companies can be characterized in the same manner–contemplating instead a “stand up for science approach” that would only divest Columbia’s endowment from firms that actively engage in climate change denialism. If ACSRI wishes to “stand up for science,” however, they should stand up for the scientific consensus that 80% of the proven reserves these companies plan to exploit must be left underground.

What’s more, “stand up for science” is a fundamental insult to the concept of climate justice, which recognizes that the most marginalized communities across the world are disproportionately affected by the climate change from which these companies directly profit. This applies to all fossil fuel companies, not just the companies that are particularly blatant climate deniers. Columbia’s mission and values cannot be aligned with companies that place profit over societal good to such an extreme.

We, the organizers and supporters of CDCJ, are tired of the ACSRI’s inability to take meaningful action. Long before they recognized it themselves in this report, we recognized that they, as a body, lack the willpower to take leadership on climate justice.

Luckily, their rejection cannot undo the fact that divestment has broad-based student support on campus: a petition of over 2000 signatures, over 350 faculty endorsements, a referendum that reflects support from 74% of Columbia College students, branches at Mailman, Teacher’s College, the Law School, SIPA, Barnard, JTS, and more. Over 200 students have pledged to participate in civil disobedience should Columbia not divest from the fossil fuel industry.

We will not be deterred by a committee that disregards the voice of students. We will simply continue to build student power until we win.

We welcome all to contact us at with any further questions and to join our meetings every Monday at 8:30PM in Hamilton 317.