“We are thrilled!” said Lucy Chatfield, a sophomore member of GU Fossil Free, a student-led group. “We are so excited and so proud of Georgetown for taking this step, and so proud of the work everyone has been doing since 2012.”
The actions at Georgetown reflect a national push to upend the country’s dependence on fossil fuels, with student campaigns at hundreds of universities. And it is in keeping with Georgetown’s wide-ranging efforts to honor Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment, including interdisciplinary studies of sustainability issues and efforts to reduce the university’s greenhouse gas emissions and waste on campus.
“His words inform and strengthen our commitment to the environment, and to one another,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia wrote in a message to campus Thursday announcing the policy. Georgetown is affiliated with the Jesuit religious order of the Roman Catholic Church.
“The work of understanding and responding to the demands of climate change is urgent and complex,” DeGioia wrote. “It requires our most serious attention.”
Peter Marra, director of the Georgetown Environment Initiative, a universitywide effort to study environment issues, described the board of director’s decision as “a major step forward, but also one of many in a comprehensive and complex set of commitments that Georgetown is making to sustainability and to the environment more broadly.”
The board’s decision directs endowment funds to be invested in areas such as renewable energy, and it freezes investments in companies and funds primarily focused on extraction of fossil fuels. It plans to phase out investments in publicly traded fossil fuel companies by 2025 and in private investments by 2030.
The vote followed a recommendation from the school’s Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility.
GU Fossil Free had submitted proposals to that committee, which reviews investment and social justice issues for Georgetown. In January 2019, GU Fossil Free proposed a plan to divest from all fossil fuel companies by 2024. The committee had worked with GU Fossil Free to avoid investing in companies that mine coal and tar sands in the past.
But after waiting a year for university leaders to make a decision on fossil fuels, the activist group announced it wanted a student vote to pressure the committee and the board of directors to divest. Two-thirds of students who were polled supported the referendum, the campus newspaper the Hoya reported.
“We are facing the biggest threat that we’ve seen with the climate crisis,” Chatfield said before the board of director’s vote was announced. “By continuing to invest our endowment in the fossil fuel industry, we are complicit in the climate crisis and we are not taking the opportunity to show real moral leadership.” After the announcement, she said joyfully, “We feel this is an ambitious and a bold step for Georgetown to be taking.”
Some other schools have said they will stop investing in fossil fuel companies or divest. Recently, the University of California system did just that.
In September, two investment leaders at the University of California wrote in the Los Angeles Times explaining the decision: “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk,” wrote Jagdeep Singh Bachher, the University of California’s chief investment officer and treasurer, and Richard Sherman, chairman of the UC Board of Regents’ investments committee. “That’s why we will have made our $13.4-billion endowment ‘fossil free’ as of the end of this month, and why our $70-billion pension will soon be that way as well.”
On Tuesday, Harvard University’s faculty voted to urge divestment of the school’s nearly $41 billion endowment from fossil fuel companies.
At Georgetown, the board’s vote follows adoption of environmental initiatives that include students donating items to people living in poverty rather than throwing the belongings away at the end of the academic year. It also includes funding research into the global decline of pollinators, such as bees.
The school has added academic programs including an undergraduate minor in environmental studies and a business-school certificate in sustainable business.
“Divestment allows us to divert more capital to fund development of renewable energy projects that will play a vital role in the transition away from fossil fuels — part of the long-term solution required to prevent the most dangerous effects of climate change,” Michael Barry, the school’s chief investment officer, said in a written statement.
He said the endowment has for years profitably invested in companies developing renewable power and will continue to do so. “Climate change, in addition to threatening our planet, is increasing the risk of investing in oil and gas companies, as we expect a more volatile range of financial outcomes,” Barry said.