Letter to the Editor: Divestment from Fossil Fuels

This letter was sent by 22 senior professors to President Biddy Martin and Cullen Murphy ‘74, the chair of the Board of Trustees, urging the college to divest from fossil fuels.

Dear Biddy and Cullen,

We write to urge you, and the Board of Trustees, to move toward divesting the college of holdings in those corporations that are committed to fossil fuel extraction to the exclusion of making serious investments in renewable energy.

We are long past the point of debating the implications of our addiction to fossil fuels. The plain fact of the matter is that we need to wean ourselves from fossil fuel dependence if we are to mitigate future challenges that are as unprecedented as they are daunting. Every economist and scientist who has studied this objectively, including our own Joseph Stiglitz and David Suzuki, has concluded that the costs in the present of shifting our economy to renewable sources of energy are far lower than the costs we will incur in continuing with business as usual. As educators, we owe it to our students to do what we can to make sure that their future will not be diminished by our reluctance to act.

We understand that, in the ordinary course of events, the Board’s policy of treating the college’s portfolio as driven by the fiduciary obligation to insure the college’s future is paramount. But there are times, hopefully few, when fiduciary responsibility has to be tempered by other sorts of responsibilities. The college has a longstanding policy of not investing in companies that produce and market alcohol and tobacco. In the 1980s, after much protest and vigorous discussion befitting an institution committed to serious intellectual inquiry, the college decided to divest of holdings in corporations doing business with and in South Africa and, even more recently, in Sudan. In each case, the trustees decided to forego the potential rewards that these investments promised because the rewards contradicted the values that the college upholds.

We acknowledge and applaud all that the college has done, and is committed to doing, to reduce our contribution to carbon emissions, and we are especially pleased that the college has created an Office of Sustainability that will make it a model of energy conservation, smart resource use and recycling. That response to the contemporary situation, however, is simply not enough. Assuring that our daily operations are sustainable is very important, but even if we were wildly successful, our impact would be a drop in the bucket. More importantly, we would have virtually no effect on the boardrooms of the fossil fuel industry. The industry has made it clear that it intends to mine the last lump of coal and the last drop of oil and natural gas. It is hard to imagine a more socially irresponsible stance. Thus we need to add Amherst’s voice to the growing ranks of colleges, universities, churches, cities, labor unions and foundations, including the Rockefeller Foundation, in calling for a turn away from dependence on fossil fuels and a transition to a sustainable energy model.

More than climate change is at stake in our investments in the fossil fuel industry. Key players in the industry, Exxon-Mobil, BP and Koch Industries, among others, have lavishly funded ersatz “think tanks” with impressive sounding names and self-appointed “experts” whose only purpose is to spread a blanket of false information about the relationship between carbon and climate and to attack legitimate climate scientists to the point of libel. With few exceptions, the industry has shown utter and unrepentant contempt for the core values of Amherst College and the intellectual principles we hold dear. We proudly proclaim terras irradient; the fossil fuel industry and its faux experts and institutes stand behind terras ignorent.

Moreover, to compound matters these same corporations have launched a campaign to discredit renewable energy. The Heartland Institute, largely a creature of Koch Industries, is promoting the totally fabricated claim that wind turbines contribute to a long list of maladies, from autism to ADHD. There is no scientific basis for such claims but by repeating them under the masthead of a legitimate-sounding “institute,” it hopes to ignite opposition to renewable energy. It cannot serve our students or our commitment to intellectual honesty to remain associated with an industry that, to be blunt, lies to the public, especially as it does so in the name of science.

Finally, using its deep pockets, the fossil fuel industry has done all it can to subvert the democratic process. Lobbying to stall or derail legislative efforts to curb carbon emissions, supporting climate deniers in Congress and funding legal challenges to efforts by states and by the federal government to curb carbon emissions, the fossil fuel industry has thwarted the desires of many citizens to address climate change.

Given all of this, we find it difficult to accept that fiduciary responsibility trumps the imperative to make clear that the fossil fuel industry imperils our students’ future and mocks our commitment to scientific inquiry and intellectual responsibility. We urge you to chart a path for an orderly divestment of our holdings in the fossil fuel industry. We have considered the different approaches to divestment in fossil fuels that colleges and universities are taking and would be happy to discuss this when the trustees are on campus in January. We hope that the agenda for that meeting will accommodate a discussion with the Board.


Jan Dizard
Joe Moore
Amrita Basu
Martha Saxton
Jerry Himmelstein
Lisa Brooks
Pavel Machala
Ethan Temeles
Anna Martini
Kristin Bumiller
David Delaney
Chris Dole
Martha Umphrey
Frank Couvares
Michele Barale
Deborah Gewertz
Rick Griffiths
Karen Sanchez-Eppler
Ron Lembo
Leah Schmalzbauer
Robert Hayashi
Judy Frank