PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — The Corporation of Brown University concluded Saturday, after a long, deep, and thoughtful discussion, that divestiture from a set of companies involved in the mining or use of coal for generating electricity is not the right tool for addressing climate change, indicating that teaching and research are more effective approaches to address this pressing societal issue. Saturday’s determination came after a lengthy and deliberative process that included substantial input from several University committees, the campus community, and months of discussion and deliberation.
In a letter to the Brown community, Brown President Christina Paxson affirmed the University’s commitment to addressing climate change through education and leadership in campus sustainability, but said divestment is “not the right tool for achieving the societal goals to which we all aspire.”
The Corporation took up the question of divestment in response to Brown Divest Coal, a student-led group. The issue was reviewed by Brown’s Advisory Committee on Corporate Responsibility in Investment Policy (ACCRIP) and an ad hoc committee of the Corporation composed of members with expertise in public policy, science, health, and financial markets. The Corporation devoted a portion of its May meeting to discussing the issue and hearing input from students active in Brown Divest Coal and from faculty members with related expertise.
At its meeting Saturday, after expansive and robust discussion on the issue of divestment that offered a full range of perspectives, the Corporation decided that it will not support divestiture from coal.
Paxson’s letter, which provides the detailed rationale for the determination not to divest, indicates that while there was agreement that coal contributes to climate change and results in social harm, the gravity is mitigated by the role that coal continues to play in much of the world.
“There is little doubt that we must reduce our reliance on coal,” Paxson said. “But the practical reality is that today, coal is the source of approximately 40 percent of the world’s electricity and it provides needed energy for millions of people throughout the world. In many regions, there are serious technological impediments to transitioning away from coal. In addition, coal is used in the production of other products, such as cement and steel, which are central to the economies of both developed and developing countries.”
The letter also states that Brown’s holdings are too small for divestment to have any effect on the companies’ bottom lines, adding that as a symbolic gesture, divestment fails to capture the complex technological and policy issues associated with stemming climate change.
The letter also outlines a number of actions Brown will take to expand its commitment to teaching and research on these issues and to campus sustainability, an area in which the University is already a leader.
In 2008 Brown committed to reducing emissions of energy-related greenhouse gases by 42 percent by 2020. The University is ahead of schedule in achieving that goal, having reduced emission by 30.6 percent as of this year. A committee tasked with addressing sustainability as part of Brown’s strategic planning process recently proposed a plan to expand these efforts.
“Our commitment to sustainability is ... reflected in the University’s strategic plan, Building on Distinction: A New Plan for Brown, which identifies ‘Sustaining Life on Earth’ as a major theme for research and education,” Paxson wrote. “Building on Brown’s Environmental Change Initiative, this new program will feature research on three challenges that come with climate change: food and water security, human health and well-being, and equity and development. These efforts will complement our long-standing and distinguished educational programs directed through the Center for Environmental Studies and support the active engagement of students and faculty in domestic and international environmental policy issues.”
Paxson also called for a Task Force on Brown’s Response to Climate Change, comprising students, faculty and staff. The group will work to identify “bold and aggressive ways that Brown as an institution and community members as individuals can lead and contribute to the societal response to climate change.“ The task force will “bring together the leading minds at Brown on these issues and will be charged with producing significant and impactful initiatives to position the University as a leader in combating climate change locally, nationally and around the globe.”
Paxson expressed appreciation for the students who raised the issue and thanked the committee members for their work.
“On behalf of the Corporation, I thank the members of Brown Divest Coal for their efforts,” Paxson said. “We admire their commitment and purpose, and we recognize the important role Brown Divest Coal has played in highlighting the issue of coal and climate change on campus.”