Pre-Pandemic History

From “Light Dawns on Sunrise Columbia” by Elida Parker (May 2022):

Before the pandemic, Sunrise Columbia was part of a powerful coordinated effort of campus climate activists demanding Columbia’s divestment from fossil fuels—an effort that included hunger strikes and a days-long sit-in outside of President Bollinger’s office. In January 2020, Columbia responded to the activists’ demands by announcing a formal policy of non-investment in fossil fuels…

Columbia formally committed to divestment from thermal coal in 2017, and to a non-investment policy for oil and gas companies in January of 2020.

These commitments came as the hard-won products of years of coordinated and driven activism by faculty members and student groups—primarily the now-dissolved Extinction Rebellion chapter. Through hunger strikes and a massive sit-in in President Bollinger’s office, students risked their health and student status to demonstrate the severity of their demands to Columbia…

Divestment recommendations for the current policy were made to Columbia’s Investment Management Fund by the Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, based partly on a proposal submitted by Extinction Rebellion and other Columbia University students. The ACSRI is also the body responsible for overseeing the continued implementation of the policy.

“The transition to net zero is both complex and evolving, and the ACSRI committee continues to work on refining the process for ensuring that the divestment policy is properly implemented,” said Professor Bruce Usher, chair of the ACSRI, in an email.

In their final position on fossil fuel divestment, the ACSRI explains why they recommended partial and not full divestment. The writers posit that “through complete divestment, Columbia will lose its ability to influence fossil fuel companies’ management by engagement and proxy voting.” They argue that allowing for partial indirect investment, or investment in oil and gas companies who have a credible plan for transitioning to net-zero by 2050, allows Columbia to have a positive influence on investment managers who might otherwise not concern themselves with climate justice. It’s unclear whether stockholder engagement of this kind actually works, or how much of this engagement is being actively pursued by the University.

According to Columbia’s final divestment policy, Columbia’s Investment Management Company will “expand its evaluation of its investment managers to “assess whether managers have established plans to create portfolios with net zero emissions by 2050.” It does not bind the IMC to any sort of action based on that expanded evaluation. The policy also states that “Columbia ultimately seeks opportunities to use the capabilities of its Investment Management Company, the Climate School and other parts of the institution in further developing these plans.”

Involving Columbia’s climate experts in investment manager decisions about developing climate-friendly portfolios sounds like an excellent plan. However, two years after the announcement of the divestment policy, it’s unclear how or when this strategy will be implemented.

Read the full article here for more details.