Reflections on Creighton’s Recent Announcement to Divest from Fossil Fuels
The announcement was sudden, but this was the result of over 2 years of persistence by the Creighton student body:
When my colleagues and I learned that Creighton’s endowment had 10.6% exposure to direct investments in fossil fuels (compared to a US average of 2%), we wrote a referendum through student government, packed with over 75 sources from academic papers and economic studies outlining the scientific, financial, and moral reasons for reducing our exposure to fossil fuels. With record turnout, it was supported by 86% of the voting student body.
However, Creighton’s administration responded that the university would not be reducing their exposure, as such action “does not align with a properly diversified endowment” and “could negatively impact Creighton and our students,” ignoring our research to the contrary.
We countered with a further abundance of evidence and data to support our case and created content like this video, this video, and this paper warning against the serious financial risks of continuing to be recklessly overexposed to an industry whose bubble was about to burst. Yet the pushback remained. Our movement was mocked on the radio, factually misrepresented by the Omaha World Herald, and three of my colleagues and I received a cease and desist letter from the university.
But then, something changed.
The losses our endowment suffered became hard to ignore. Since our movement began, fossil fuel equities underperformed the rest of the economy by over 80%, which resulted in tens of millions of dollars in losses to our university.
And this was no short term trend. Since the Great Recession, the energy sector has been the lowest performing sector in the S&P 500 by far, averaging an annual return of -4.5%, compared to the S&P 500’s average annual return of 8.2%.
Being heavily overexposed to fossil fuels, Creighton’s financial reports revealed that over the past decade, the endowment’s annual return consistently underperformed the national average for universities, leading to less funding for student aid and campus projects.
And as dirty energy continued to be punished by the markets this spring, the university’s tone began to gradually change. In February and June, it was announced that partial divestments had been made. And then today, the university not only agreed to FULLY divest from fossil fuels, but to divert investments into renewable energy and energy efficiency, in an even faster timeline than we had asked for in our referendum. The same university who one short year ago claimed that divestment could be a financial disaster, today concluded that, “According to our investment advisors, [divestment] can be accomplished without a negative impact on the strength and overall performance of our endowment, which greatly serves the mission of the institution.”
What is the lesson here?
While not everyone will do the right thing for moral reasons, eventually, everyone gets tired of losing money. Society is transforming. Investors who are on the wrong side of innovation and the shift to clean technology will be faced with two choices: accept reality, or continue to suffer financially.
Today, Creighton finally chose the former. This is a win not only for the climate and Creighton’s endowment, but for the future of sustainable and responsible capitalism. People are voting with their dollars, and the companies that refuse to adapt their business models to a carbon constrained society are losing badly. While it is possible that we see a temporary recovery in oil and gas prices riding positive vaccine and reopening news, the long-term trend is clear. The evidence of an economic transformation is undeniable, and the market is sending a clear signal to investors.
Who will be the next university to accept reality?
Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Bill McKibben — who is the visionary behind this global movement and whose book first put divestment on my radar; to James Hansen — who came to speak at Creighton and agreed to address the topic of divestment with many high decision makers in the room; to the allies within Creighton’s faculty and staff — whose support was welcomed and necessary to legitimize our vision; and of course to the individual work of countless Creighton students who made this happen.
And finally to every person who made every step in this process so difficult — those who threatened us, mocked us, didn’t respond to our emails, tried to slow us down, and said this type of change would never happen at Creighton. You made us realize how important this work is and made us push that much harder. This would not have been possible without you either.
This has been a journey and sparked a passion in me that has turned into a career in climate finance. This is just the beginning!