By Kayla Lawlor, MCAS '20, co-president of Climate Justice at Boston College.
Upon reading, yet again, another rejection of students’ calls to divest from fossil fuels, I was overcome with a wave of frustration. Even now, the right words still evade me. It’s not just frustration. It is deep, deep sadness. It is fear. It is exasperation and indignation. It is, above all, disappointment in having to read yet another variation of the same old excuse: “Boston College remains opposed to divestment from fossil fuel companies on the grounds that it is not a viable solution to the important issue of climate change.”
As co-president of Climate Justice at Boston College, I have to be honest about the constant anger I feel towards this injustice. I came to this university believing that it cared about God’s creation, the pursuit of truth, and the call for justice. Maybe it was naive of me to assume that the mission of the university would be its top priority. Nevertheless, it continues to shock me that even scientific evidence is being ignored.
The university’s position is that “the most effective way to limit climate change is for Boston College, along with corporations, organizations and individuals, to take active steps to reduce energy consumption and enhance sustainability measures.”
This assumption, as well as that of the statement quoted above, tells us a few things. Mainly that Boston College has not done its own research, or at least has not seriously engaged with the conclusions of such research. It is a scientific fact that we cannot “limit climate change” without reducing total anthropogenic carbon emissions to zero. It is basic knowledge that our climate system cannot begin to stabilize as long as our energy output is greater than what the earth can take in. This is basic, basic stuff that is not being taken seriously.
We would be more than happy to engage in constructive dialogue with the university on the scientific research that has been available for decades. If we are to succeed in mitigating our carbon emissions, small-scale adaptations will do nothing to protect our future. We commend the sustainability department and other environmental groups on campus for pushing the administration on issues such as energy conservation, but there is only so much individuals can do before realizing the only true solution—to any problem, in fact—is to tackle it at the source.
While Boston College cites its initiatives in conservation programs and the construction of LEED-certified buildings, it goes without saying that changing light-bulbs is not enough. Putting up flyers in the dining halls is not enough. F.R.E.S.H. t-shirts and #Choose2Reuse signs only mean something when an actual choice is presented. We are encouraged to reuse, but plastic utensils are the only option in the dining halls. If anything, we’re regressing.
If students stealing silverware is the problem, why is it we cannot switch to compostable utensils as an alternative? And why is it that the feedback links on the Boston College website are broken? I digress. BC views climate change as an issue to be solved through gradual modifications, not systemic transformation. That view is a falsehood we in Climate Justice reject in its entirety, because such an opinion derives from a shallow understanding of what "care for our common home" requires of us.
Above all, the fact remains that Boston College does not see an ethical dilemma in remaining invested in dirty energy. Active engagement in sustainability efforts is not simply encouraging students to use less water or turn off the lights when you leave the room. Active engagement in sustainability requires us to remove the social license to operate we continuously give to the fossil fuel industry. Every time Boston College rejects another resolution, another referendum, it is not only ignoring the voices of adults it claims to respect—it is also giving positive affirmation to the corporations who profit from climate change.
[Noam Bergman, “Impacts of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement: Effects on Finance, Policy and Public Discourse,” Sustainability (Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, Brighton: 2018)].
We know Boston College thinks divestment from fossil fuels is too risky and would hurt financial aid. If such a statement were true, it begs the question: is Boston College effectively admitting it must be invested in immoral institutions in order to remain viable as a university? If this is so, then isn’t Boston College as an institution unsustainable? In all seriousness, if this is the case, and we cannot exist and serve others without destroying ourselves, then maybe we do not have a stable or moral foundation to begin with.
Maybe, when student voices are constantly ignored, we also need to consider if our knowledge and education means anything. Maybe the rejection of our initiatives is intentional. We want to assume the best of this university, and no matter our frustrations, we still wish to forgive and work in harmony—to share the knowledge this university has provided us.
We often hear the question, “Well, if we’re not invested in fossil fuels, what should we be invested in instead?” A simple Google search can tell you that socially responsible funds do exist, and, from 2016 to 2018, enjoyed a growth rate of more than 38% (Figure A). The Forum for Sustainable and Responsible Investment further provides information on fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment options by asset class and investor type, along with additional resources. Alternative investment in funds such as DSI, TICRX, or PORTX is something the Board of Trustees should take seriously. Further, we are losing money by remaining invested in fossil fuels. How much, exactly, is unclear, given the secrecy surrounding the Board of Trustees and our actual holdings. When even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund is divesting, though, you know something is up.
Climate Justice at Boston College again invites members of the administration and the Board of Trustees to have a constructive conversation on the effects of divestment and possible alternatives. We would be happy to point out the moral implications of giving economic, and therefore social, approval to dirty energy, along with peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of climate change as it is currently understood.
As we have reached out in good faith, we sincerely hope we will be reached out to in turn. From my experience in this organization, I have learned that transparency, understanding, and reconciliation is the only effective way to achieve meaningful results. We want to engage in meaningful dialogue, and hope this referendum will provide a path to do just that.
Finally, we wish to make it clear that Catholic ethics are not utilitarian. Catholic Social Teaching does not ask whether divestment is “a viable solution to the important issue of climate change”; rather, it asks whether we can rigorously justify our investment in an industry so destructive to human dignity and the dignity of all creation. Our common conviction that God’s presence is manifested in all of creation, and that we must therefore care for one another and the world we inhabit, is a shared foundation upon which we can join together in goodwill to discuss how we as a university can best carry out our mission.
Moral convictions have meaning only to the extent to which they are demonstrated in reality. “[L]et us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18). The burden to do the right thing is on us. We will thus continue our struggle for divestment and climate justice, because the latter remains contingent on the former, as do all struggles for justice.
To all of us, then, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9).