It’s Past Time for Princeton to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Written by Ryan Warsing of Divest Princeton

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to be persuaded that the planet is on fire, and we need to do something to put it out fast.  We see evidence all around us:  California is again in the throes of a record wildfire seasonglaciers the size of Manhattan are sliding into the sea, and in some of the most densely populated parts of the world, massive cities are being swallowed by the tide.  There is little dispute that these disasters stem from our burning of fossil fuels, and that by most any measure, we are failing to prevent the worst.

(Sources: Nik Gaffney / Flickr; Pixabay; Don Becker, USGS / Flickr; CraneStation / Flickr – Creative Commons)

Meanwhile, in balmy Princeton, New Jersey, the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative (CMI) and Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment have signed splashy agreements with BP and Exxon (respectively) to fund research into renewable fuels, carbon capture and storage, and other climate innovations.  Since 2000, these companies have pumped over $30 million into CMI and the Andlinger Center, with the latter recently extending its Exxon contract for another five years.  

To put it politely, we of Divest Princeton say these partnerships do more harm than good.  True, they may create new and valuable knowledge, but that isn’t really why they exist.  In one leaked exchange from 1998, Exxon representatives strategized about the need to “identify and establish cooperative relationships with all major scientists whose research in the field supports our position,” and to “monitor and serve as an early warning system for scientific development with the potential to impact on the climate science debate, pro and con.”

Taking this statement literally — and why shouldn’t we? — BP and Exxon’s support for Princeton is more than simple altruism.  It’s more than good PR.  Rather, it’s part of a years-long effort not to aid, but to manage climate research toward ends not in conflict with their extractive business model.  Tellingly, these do-gooder oil companies plan to increase production 35% by 2030.  This would be cataclysmic.

Their schemes are made possible by funding and power gifted by Princeton.  We cannot tolerate, let alone enable these activities any longer.  Not when they pose such obvious conflicts with our university’s core values and threaten our fellow students and faculty working around the world.  Princeton must stand up for itself.  How better than by divesting from fossil fuels?

The divestment movement has grown rapidly in recent years, with institutions like Georgetown UniversityBrown, Cornell, and Oxford recently joining its ranks.  Collective actions have taken a toll — Goldman Sachs says that divestment is partly to blame for widespread credit de-ratings in the coal industry, and Shell is on-record saying divestment will present “a material adverse effect on the price of our securities and our ability to access equity capital markets.”  Essentially, divestment works.

We argue that the moral imperative of divestment should be compelling enough on its own; if Princeton moved to divest and the markets didn’t budge an inch, at least then our conscience would be clean.  At least then we could call ourselves “sustainable” with a straight face and live honestly by our motto: “in the nation’s service, and the service of humanity.”  

Detractors maintain that any “demands” on Princeton’s endowment would constrain its ability to earn huge returns, depriving students of the financial support they need to prosper.  This is absurd.  Billion-dollar endowments like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund have demonstrated that divestment can be a net positive.  Fossil fuel stocks have also been declining for years.  It looks increasingly clear that an investor gains little “diversifying” in fossil fuel, and that the risks of divestment have been well overblown.  Shareholders — especially shareholders with a fiduciary responsibility like Princeton’s — should be looking for the exit.

In order to remain within 1.5°C of global warming by mid-century — the threshold at which the IPCC and Princeton’s own Sustainability Action Plan say “catastrophic consequences” will be unavoidable — the fossil fuel industry’s ambitious exploration and development will need to be mothballed.  Undrilled oil fields and unmined coal will become stranded assets, or dead weight on their companies’ books.  To have faith in these investments, Princeton must think stranded assets will actually go to use, in which case, Princeton ignores its own scientists and legitimizes the activities central to our climate crisis.

Video showing a progression of changing global surface temperature anomalies from 1951-2019. The average temperatures over 1951-1980 are the baseline shown in white. Higher than normal temperatures are shown in red and lower than normal temperatures are shown in blue. The final frame represents the 5 year global temperature anomalies from 2015-2019. Scale in degrees Celsius. (Source: Lori Perkins / NASA and NOAA)

Others have argued that regardless of donors’ ulterior motives, divesting would only leave good money and research on the table.  To these people, the “greenwashing” corporations seek from partnering with elite institutions is both inevitable and of little consequence compared to the novel scholarship their funding provides.  The catch here is that quality research and a morally invested endowment are not mutually exclusive.  There isn’t a rule saying our research must be funded by BP or Exxon — if Princeton truly valued this knowledge, it would channel its creative energies toward finding funding elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” could very easily be the university’s own wallet.  Princeton is quick to remind us it holds the biggest per-student endowment in the country.  The endowment today is a bit larger than $26 billion, roughly the size of Iceland’s GDP and larger than GDPs of half the world’s countries.  In the last ten years alone, Princeton’s endowment has more than doubled.  In this light, the money needed to sustain current research is practically a rounding error.  If just a few Trustees put their donations together, they could recoup Exxon’s latest $5 million donation in under five seconds!

We tried to anticipate these doubts in our divestment proposal, which was given to Princeton’s administration last February.  Since then, we have met with Princeton’s Resources Committee and invited experts — former Committee Member Shannon Osaka, President of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund Stephen Heintz, and Stanford researcher Dr. Ben Franta — to help present our case.  Discussions will continue through the end of 2020, culminating in a forum with 350.org’s Bill McKibben in November.

As a reward for our persistence, the Resources Committee has indicated it might decide on our proposal by Christmas.  If it approves, the proposal goes to the Board of Trustees, and the clock starts over.  This, dear readers, is the “fast track.”

It has been demoralizing to watch Princeton, one of the world’s great centers of higher learning and a temple to empirical evidence, run interference for companies that have scorned the truth, knowingly endangered billions, and literally confessed to their ill intent.  From its byzantine system for proposing divestments to its arbitrary requirement saying divestment must take the form of complete dissociation (a prohibitively high bar), Princeton’s strategy is to frustrate and outlast causes like ours.  Most of the time, it succeeds.

But our cause is different from the others.  With climate change, waiting is simply not an option.  The immovable object will meet an unstoppable force, and the unstoppable force will win.

The longer we delay, the longer we allow fossil fuel companies to weaponize Princeton’s gravitas, spreading disinformation and quack science while purporting to be part of “the solution.”  Until Princeton inevitably divests from these bad actors, we will continue to withhold our donations, continue to protest, and continue to organize, fighting fire with fire.


Divest Princeton is a volunteer movement of Princeton students, alumni, parents, faculty, and staff.  Sign their “No Donations Until Divestment” petition and learn more here.

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