Fossil Free vs. UGBC Debate Leaves Divestment Issue Unresolved

Last night, March 26, representatives from Boston College Fossil Free and the Undergraduate Government of Boston College (UGBC) faced off in a debate on the issue of divestment, an ongoing climate change movement that calls for universities and institutions to pull current investments from fossil free companies and divest from pursuing any future investments.

Erin Sutton and TJ Buckley, both A&S ’16, spoke in favor of the resolution as representatives of BC Fossil Free, while Matt Alonsozana, A&S ’14, and current vice president of UGBC, teamed up with Alex Tingle, CSOM ’14, in opposition of the campaign.

The debate, hosted by UGBC in conjunction with the Fulton Debating Society, aimed to open up the discussion of BC Fossil Free’s petition for BC to “immediately halt new investments in the top 200 fossil free firms, and divest from those firms within five years,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

Each team was given the opportunity to give two five-minute presentations on their positions, with a cross-examination period in between each speech. The audience then participated in a question and answer session before each team gave their closing statements.

Photo courtesy of BC Fossil Free/Facebook

Photo courtesy of BC Fossil Free/Facebook

Buckley began by admitting that although he does not have extensive experience with the green energy movement and has not always been an advocate for climate change, he has experience with hearing the stories of those affected by Hurricane Sandy, including those of his roommate. In addition, his own personal experience with Hurricane Irene, during which his house was without power for seven consecutive days, brought to light the fact that climate change affects his daily life and his actions directly played a role in the future of how the earth is to function.

He described the issue of climate change as “a human rights issue,” citing Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 caused 1,882 deaths and $125 billion in damages. These statistics, combined with the fact that climate issues cause 400,000 deaths annually and that 13 of the 14 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century, were stated by Buckley as “the direct result of us finding, extracting, and burning fossil fuels.”

“[The climate change movement] is a real and growing movement right now, and the divestment campaign is a huge part of it,” Buckley said. “As a leading American and Jesuit university, BC has a chance and a responsibility to stand up for what’s right, to be a leader, and to really make a difference.”

Megan Flynn/Gavel Media

Megan Flynn/Gavel Media

Erin Sutton provided a compelling and heartfelt narrative in her initial presentation, crafting a world 16 years from now in which she is uncertain of what kind of life her children will have.

Sutton cited evidence that 16 years from today, the world’s greenhouse gas reserves will be entirely depleted, and that our current CO2 levels in the atmosphere are not the same stable ones that built up civil society prior to the Industrial Revolution. To reduce these levels, she suggested that we would have to reduce our fossil fuel use to one fifth of what we are currently burning.

"While we wouldn’t mind seeing their profits drop, we’re after something different,” she said. “Divestment sends the message that it’s wrong to wreck the planet and it’s absolutely criminal to profit from that wreckage.”

The goal of the divestment movement is primarily the stigmatization of the fossil fuel industry, according to Sutton, and it is through this social change that the democratic system will take over.

History shows us that constituents putting pressure on their politicians in Washington will cause tangible regulations and taxes on fossil fuel companies to be enacted, but it starts with small-scale divestment movements, such as the one that BC Fossil Free is pushing for at BC.

On the opposing side, Tingle centered his argument around evidence that suggested BC’s divestment from fossil fuel companies will not have an impact on the usage of fossil fuels or the companies in general.

Since universities’ share of fossil fuel companies on average is only 2-3 percent, removing their stake isn’t enough to make a tangible difference, and divestment won’t affect the supply and demand of fossil fuel use, according to Tingle.

He also cited several studies that say political support is lacking for restrictions on carbon emissions, and, in the public eye, climate change is the second to last issue of importance, according to a Pew Research Center study.

If BC divests, Tingle believes that it will be “taking away from the resources that contribute to the advancement of Boston College” by ultimately reducing the university’s endowment and the opportunities that it provides to faculty and students.

“As Robert Stavins, Director of Harvard Environmental Economics Department put it, ‘Symbolic actions substitute for truly effective actions by allowing us to fool ourselves into thinking we’re doing something meaningful with our problem when we are not,’” he said.

Matt Alonsozana, current UGBC vice president, also was concerned about the loss of endowment BC would experience should they sell their stocks in top 200 fossil fuel companies.

“Divestment would fail to uphold the primary purpose of Boston College – to provide students with the resources and the education necessary to grow into the leaders of the future,” he said.

The endowment provides funding for student retreats and clubs, makes it possible to hire the best professors, and provides students with financial aid. The main concern of divestment is a loss of funding for the education of students to address climate change in other ways, according to Alonsozana.

Photo courtesy of BC Fossil Free/Facebook

Photo courtesy of BC Fossil Free/Facebook

The opposition also expressed their concern for upholding the Jesuit values of Boston College, one of them being to take into consideration the needs of those less fortunate.

Since greener energy sources are more expensive than fossil fuels, pulling investments from oil and natural gas companies would drive up the energy costs of impoverished people in developing countries, who rely on these cheaper fuels for daily use. Alonsozana cited his own family in the Philippines as an example, asking how we can call ourselves a Jesuit institution when we don’t have these people in mind in making our investment decisions.

The conversation then turned to the audience, where questions addressing both sides of the situation were posed toward the debaters. Eric Roy, A&S ’16 and a member of BC Students for Sexual Health, gave his own testament toward the impact of social change. The club’s own stigmatization of anti-condom culture on Catholic college campuses, caused from BCSSH’s successful press attention last spring, gradually pushed BC toward agreeing to fund sexual health education for freshmen.

Roy supported BC Fossil Free’s goal of enacting social change and recognized the importance of creating a stir in the present on the path toward tangible change in the future.

In her closing argument, Sutton referenced her involvement in protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline on March 2, which resulted in the arrests of 400 people, herself included. “A couple weekends ago, I was chained to the White House fence,” she said. “When I told my family, they immediately asked, ‘Aren’t you worried about your future?’ Damn right I’m worried about my future, and that’s why I did what I did.”

The Fossil Free team emphasized that divesting is only one part of the movement against global climate change, and that, in the past, student-led divestment campaigns have been effective in bringing national attention to the negative impact of fossil fuel companies.

The divestment movement, Buckley said, will bring about social stigmatization of the fossil fuels industry, which, in reference to Alonsozana’s previous concern about developing countries, will ensure that those same countries still exist in the future.

Megan Flynn/Gavel Media

Megan Flynn/Gavel Media

On the other hand, Tingle and Alonsozana reaffirmed their belief that divestment as a movement at Boston College does not lead to any clear solution in the global climate change problem, and that those in favor of the movement have no coherent plan for enacting change and gathering political support.

They strongly emphasized that an endowment loss because of divestment would result in less opportunities for further education on climate change, and referred to divestment as “chasing after shadows” rather than coming together as a viable and tangible reform movement.

Although both sides made convincing cases, those in attendance remained torn at the end of the debate, resulting in a 50-50 split on whether BC should divest from fossil fuel companies or not. It is apparent that the issue is still emotionally and passionately charged, both globally and in the Boston College community, and it remains to be seen whether the benefits outweigh the costs for BC as a Jesuit university.

To learn more about BC Fossil Free’s divestment campaign, check out http://bcfossilfree.org or BC Fossil Free on Facebook.

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