Despite the obstacles that COVID-19 presents to student activism, the environmentalist student group Divest Princeton has only gained steam. Next week, the group will face one of its biggest tests of public support yet: a referendum on the Undergraduate Student Government (USG) winter election ballot.
Dedicated to pressuring the University to formally divest all endowment holdings in the fossil fuel industry, Divest Princeton has accumulated nearly 2,000 endorsements among alumni, students, faculty, student groups, and prominent figures, including renowned conservationist Jane Goodall. Still, the group continues to face opposition from some community members.
As of Nov. 18, 1,706 alumni, faculty, students, staff, and parents had signed the group’s open letter to President Christopher Eisgruber ’83. Of that total, 936 are alumni. Signatories pledge to withhold donations from the University until and unless it commits to divesting from fossil fuels.
Divest Princeton’s steady growth of support comes as several of the University’s peer institutions have announced varying commitments to divestment. In February, Georgetown University committed to a five-year plan to divest from public securities of any company whose primary purpose is the exploration or extraction of fossil fuels. Brown University sold 90 percent of its holdings in fossil fuel companies in early March, and the University of California system became the largest university in the country to fully divest from the industry in May.
In an email statement to The Daily Princetonian, University Spokesperson Ben Chang reiterated that a proposal for fossil-fuel divestment is currently under discussion before the Council of the Princeton University Community (CPUC) Resources Committee. Divest Princeton submitted the proposal in February.
“We continue to support a robust dialogue around issues of importance to this institution and believe all points of view should have the space and opportunity for consideration and debate within the community,” Chang wrote.
A total of 62 faculty and staff members had formally endorsed Divest Princeton at the time of publication, according to the group’s website, and 58 had signed the open letter. Endorsers ranged across disciplines, from Kevin Kruse and Tera Hunter in the history department to Michael Oppenheimer and Denise Mauzerall, professors in geosciences and environmental engineering, respectively.
“As an undergraduate in the 1980s, I recall the movement to divest from South Africa and the ways in which it contributed to the stigmatization of the apartheid regime,” Varun Gauri GS ’96, a visiting lecturer at the School of Public and International Affairs and former fellow at The Brookings Institute, told the ‘Prince.’ “I believe that climate change is similar — the political system is deadlocked. We urgently need social and moral pressure.”
Peter Singer, professor of bioethics and a signatory, stressed that divestment is long overdue.
“Any moment in the last 20 or more years would have been a good time for the university to divest from fossil fuels,” Singer wrote to the ‘Prince.’ “Elite universities should be setting an example. They should show that they understand the urgency and importance of reaching net zero emissions as soon as possible.”
Raphaël Piguet, lecturer in French and Italian, called divesting a “no-brainer.” The University’s highest per-capita endowment in the world confers an obligation to lead, he said, adding that the University “shouldn’t wait a second to start investing responsibly.”
“The more money, the more responsibilities, the bigger the potential impact for the greater good,” he told the ‘Prince.’ “To me, it’s a question of thinking forward or backward ... We know full well that the current reliance on fossil fuels is bound to come to a crashing halt, but we also know the earlier we start correcting the course, the more we will be able to mitigate the impacts of that crash.”
Between Nov. 23 and Nov. 25, the undergraduate student body will vote on Divest Princeton’s referendum question, sponsored by Anna Hiltner ’23, one of the group’s leaders. Hiltner is a contributing columnist for the ‘Prince.’
“Divestment will not only be in the best interest of the University, but will also work to the benefit of the nation, and humanity,” Hiltner wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “The greatest leverage we have as Princeton students in the climate fight is the Princeton name and its $26 billion endowment.”
In addition to the dozens of faculty and staff members who have signed on and endorsed, 92 students, 161 alumni, and 40 student campus organizations had formally endorsed the group in writing at the time of publication.
Thea Zalabak ’21, president of Terrace Club — the only eating club to have backed the movement — wrote to the ‘Prince’ that the club’s endorsement stems from the recognition of the “role that fossil fuels play in perpetuating environmental damage, racism, and inequality.”
“We feel that we cannot in good conscience support the University’s ability to profit from fossil fuels, as this undermines so much of the hard work that students and faculty have done to advance environmental and climate research,” she continued.
“Terrace is a club that acts for the future,” Zalabak added. “And with the knowledge that we are likely about seven years away from the next climate crisis, we want to be clear that our environment should always have priority over profit.”
Samantha Bents ’22, president of the Princeton Conservation Society, emphasized that the University has “contributed significantly” to research indicating that continued fossil fuel use “will cause global catastrophe.”
“However, knowledge is powerless without action,” Bents wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “To have the data and knowledge but not use it to do what is right is an injustice to science and to humanity. Princeton University is world-renowned as a research institution, and should celebrate their ability to act on the knowledge they produce.”
In a virtual event held on Nov. 13, titled “The Right Side of the Future,” Bill McKibben, environmentalist, author of “The End of Nature,” and fossil-fuel divestment activist since the movement’s inception, spoke on the responsibility he believes Princeton has to divest.
“I think it’s particularly pathetic for universities to try to profit off of fossil fuel precisely because they have a special contract with the future,” Mckibben said. “We are in a time of emergency, so it’s particularly painful to watch an institution like Princeton refuse to lead [or], even at this point, to follow.”
Student leaders from the Princeton Environmental Activism Coalition (PEAC) echoed Bents and Martin’s sentiments, writing in an email that while the University has made efforts to support climate research and has created a Sustainability Action Plan, they deem the targets and goals to be distant and insufficient.
Like Singer, they believe the best moment for divestment was 20 years ago.
“But the second best moment is now,” wrote Katherine Forbes ’23, Hannah Reynolds ’22, Lena Hoplamazian ’23, and Helen Brush ’24.
Reynolds is a contributing columnist for the ‘Prince.’
“To fellow students, we ask you to keep in mind that for the rest of our lives, we will carry the Princeton name,” the PEAC leaders continued. “We ask you to hold the University accountable for their complacency in the climate crisis. Failure to speak out is unacceptable when Princeton is complicit in the climate crisis threatening human lives and our planet.”
Some community members, however, remain opposed to divestment.
Stephen Pacala, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, sees the group as setting up a false dichotomy: divest or don’t divest. He would argue that there is a third option — divesting from the fossil fuel companies that are not working to net zero carbon emissions.
“This choice is not binary,” Pacala said. “If the choices were to do nothing or divest, maybe my views would be different.”
“I want the emissions stopped as fast as we can do it without hurting poor people,” he continued, echoing an argument he made in February. “If that’s your goal, it’s hard to argue that Princeton's moral stand should be to divest for moral purposes.”
He disagreed with Divest Princeton’s demand that the University divest from and phase out all research and formal associations with fossil fuel companies, but said he would “welcome Princeton deciding both to divest from and to boycott the products of those who work against the net zero transition.”
United States Congressman Ken Buck ’81 recently weighed in, writing in a ‘Prince’ op-ed that “[f]rom a financial perspective, divestment from fossil fuels would be a disaster, and would reduce the funds available for scholarships.”
“Rather than focusing on divesting from fossil fuels, student activists could help usher in the next era of clean energy derived from fossil fuels, with an emphasis on even greater improvements in natural gas production,” he continued. “That undertaking, unlike the misguided divestment effort, would be a good use of their energy.”
Yet, the group’s progress is undeniable. Reynolds, one of the student organizers, cited the question on the USG ballot as evidence of the movement’s growing traction.
“Last year, one of my courses had a debate on divestment and student and faculty opinions on divestment were largely divided on the subject,” she told the ‘Prince.’ “This year, the professors asked me to return to the class for the divestment debate, and all the students I spoke with were in support of divestment.”
Responding to Buck’s op-ed, titled “Divestment from fossil fuels is a foolish endeavor,” English professor Meredith Martin said, “Well, yes, it’s a foolish endeavor if divestment is the only thing we do, if it’s just symbolic.” She noted that to her, the pandemic has served as a microcosm for “the consequences of ignoring science.”
To Hiltner, the referendum comes down to “students expressing a real desire for the Board of Trustees to take action” against the world’s most pressing crisis.
“We need the members of the Board to use their enormous positions of power to listen to what we and the rest of the Princeton community are asking of them,” she said. “And we are optimistic that they will. We don’t have the luxury of believing that they won’t.”