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Princeton must divest from fossil fuels

Grey and brick building with reflective window at dusk. Large abstract grey and orange sculpture in front.
The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.
Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

The climate crisis is with us now, from the floods in Indonesia to the fires in Australia that have been burning out of control since June 2019. Looking ahead, land occupied by 150 million people will likely be permanently below the high tide line by 2050, devastating cities and regions around the world. For instance, modeling predicts that Southern Vietnam “could all but disappear.” The vast populations projected to be affected forebodes the possibilities of mass displacement and surging climate refugeeism.

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is human-made. Experts have estimated that 400,000 people die annually from climate change, and casualties multiply when considering long-term exposure to poisoned air and water. Climate change is also causing a devastating impact on our biodiversity. Humanity has wiped out 60 percent of animal populations since 1970 and a further 1 million species of our planet are currently under threat of extinction.The IPCC urged that every effort must be made to limit warming to 1.5˚C — a commitment made by 175 countries in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement. In order to achieve this goal, global emissions must be halved in the next ten years.


Despite these dire findings, Princeton University supports the very companies at the root of the problem, primarily — but not exclusively —  via investments from the University’s $26 billion endowment. Divest Princeton is calling on the University to divest of fossil fuels.

In response to these calls, President Eisgruber has repeatedly argued that the University’s divestment from fossil fuels would amount to political position-taking. However, to continue to fund the fossil fuel industry is a political stand and doing nothing in a time of crisis is a moral failure.

Divestment has a precedent, both inside and outside academia. In 1985, Princeton joined other universities and institutions to divest from companies supporting South African apartheid. In 2006, the University divested from companies doing business in Darfur, South Sudan, where millions of Darfuri civilians had been killed in brutal genocide. In 2020, we face a new crisis - arguably the worst global humanitarian crisis we have ever faced. 

Major peer institutions (Stanford University, University of California and Georgetown University), wealth funds (BlackRock, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Caisse des Dépôts), as well as many other organizations (the British Medical Association and the Tate museums) have committed to rapidly divest from the fossil fuel industry. 

Students at the University regularly express wishes for urgent climate action and divestment. Previous divestment campaigns have garnered thousands of signatures and a recent petition initiated by University alumni has garnered 800 signatures as of this submission, with signatories vowing not to donate to the University until it divests from fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel companies now seek to rebrand, touting altruistic investments in renewable technologies and generous funding to universities such as BP’s $43 million and ExxonMobil’s $6.7 million donated to the University's climate change research. Despite the shift in branding, investments in sustainable enterprises are dismal with only 1 percent of their budget spent on non-oil and gas projects. Meanwhile, the industry’s efforts to integrate themselves into University research helps to change the narrative and deflect blame from their own culpability. In fact, while the companies like BP claim to be interested in supporting research into climate solutions, they continue to politically thwart adoption of these same solutions.


For decades, many of the 20 fossil fuel companies responsible for roughly a third of carbon emissions have understood the risks of their activities. Yet, in public, they remained involved in lobbying and donations to block action on climate change and to fund sham science to obfuscate and shape different narratives about the impacts of climate change and where the responsibility lies. As the Carbon Tracker Initiative report states, extracting and burning all planned coal and oil gas reserves would release five times more carbon than we can afford if we hope to remain under 2°C of global warming. Through its continued support of the fossil fuel industry, the  University not only legitimizes the unethical behaviour of these companies, but also weakens its capacity to contribute to the climate change debate in an impartial way. To protect its moral integrity and credible scholarship, the University should follow its peers and divest.

Divestment from fossil fuels is not only a powerful symbolic gesture, but also a measure to protect the University community. New Jersey is the sixth-fastest warming state in the country, and such changes in temperature have been increasing the severity of downpours, storms, and inland floods. In the past 10 years, the University had to cancel several classes and events due to floods and lightning storms. The University’s responsibility, however, doesn’t end at Nassau Street — as an institution of historical privilege, the University owes a debt of reparation to marginalized communities, even more so now as black and brown people around the world have been, and will continue to be, the worst affected by climate change. 

The University should not fund projects that are incompatible with its (“unofficial”) motto to be “In the Nation's Service and the Service of Humanity.” Likewise, the University should not accept large funding of research activities from fossil fuel companies (particularly on the very issue that those companies have spent decades trying to obfuscate). This is even less acceptable now, as the environmentally responsible industries have become just as profitable, or more profitable, than oil and coal, and likely more successful in the long run. Instead, the University should redirect its investments and focus to promote ecological resilience and overall community wellbeing, focusing on projects and business increasing community empowerment and prosperity while shifting away from dependence on extractive industries.

We, Divest Princeton, an association of University students and alumni, submitted a petition to the Council of the Princeton University Community for the committee’s review and consideration.

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Specifically, we recommend the following:

  1. Princeton University divests of all its direct holdings of fossil fuels;
  2. Princeton University divests of all indirect holdings of fossil fuels (e.g. commingled funds and shareholders of major fossil fuel companies); 
  3. Princeton University prohibits all new research or associative financial relationships with fossil fuel companies;
  4. Princeton University establishes a body to ensure its endowment is ethically invested; and
  5. This new body hosts open meetings and releases regular, publicly verifiable reports to measure its progress. 

We are all compelled to fight climate change to the extent that our power allows, and with $26 billion under its control, the University has more power than most. If universities like Princeton who pride themselves on reason and evidence-based leadership fail to take the necessary steps in the fight against climate change, who will?

Ryan Warsing and Isty Rysava are graduate students and members of Divest Princeton. They can be reached at