In 2012, To challenge the United States’ government-backed exploitation of the fossil fuel industry, American universities began a national divestment movement. The goal was to encourage higher education institutions to move their money out of fossil fuel companies in order to pressure corporations into making better decisions about their energy. More than 100 schools committed to divesting from fossil fuels, and institutions like Harvard and Princeton pledged to join the movement in 2022.
Considering Lewis & Clark is “committed to sustainability,” according to the LC website, it is paramount that our student body stay informed and pressure administration for transparency and accountability regarding LC’s relationship to the divestment movement.
Divestment, or the removal of all investments from fossil fuels and oils, is a strategy that holds the school accountable to no longer profiting off carbon emissions. In 2012, a group composed of student activists, Associate Professor of Sociology Bruce Podobnik, former Vice President of Business and Finance Carl Vance and Students Engaged in Eco-Defense (SEED) worked to convince the school that divestment was the right path forward. They created a petition and gathered over 900 signatures, held protests as LC accepted awards for sustainability and created financial breakdowns that proved to the Board of Trustees that divestment would not hurt our investment returns. In 2018, LC agreed to implement a divestment policy.
“This is encouraging news on both the small scale, for Lewis & Clark as an institution, and also in terms of the global fossil-free movement,” Evelyn Hunsberger ’19 said.
There were a handful of contracts extending beyond five years, but the endowment was set to “eliminate exposure to fossil fuel companies held indirectly through public commingled strategies” by December 2022, alongside the promise of a yearly disclosure report explaining to students the progress of the initiative. Unfortunately, the agreement was not kept: After a few years of slow movement toward divestment, in the fall of 2022 the Board of Trustees voted to change LC’s policy to the net-zero standard.
The newly adopted net-zero carbon emissions plan is appealing at first glance. LC set a hefty goal of a 50% reduction by 2030, and going completely emission-free by 2040, a decade earlier than most institutions are committing to. Net-zero as a review of the entire endowment portfolio does have its benefits. Chief Financial Officer Andrea Dooley explained that the policy includes an explicit commitment to invest in climate solutions.
However, this plan is less than perfect. Under a net-zero emissions strategy, the school can still invest in fossil fuel, as long as the school also invests in other sustainable companies or purchases carbon credits to counteract the negative contributions.
Environmental activists have criticized the net-zero policy as misleading, since effectively replacing non-renewable resources isn’t actually achievable in the short term. Clover Sinning ’26 would prefer that the school works, “to minimize its carbon footprint by actually reducing its amount of greenhouse gas emissions,” rather than just offsetting carbon emissions. Ideally, LC can maintain both a commitment to divesting from fossil fuels and to investing in renewable energy, but I hesitate to trust that the administration will prioritize divestment.
One of the largest barriers to understanding LC’s climate investment policies is the lack of consistent reporting from the financial office. While an initial part of the promise for divestment included an annual report updating students on the school’s progress, those releases are hard to trace. Sinning, a member of SEED who helped write a report on the school’s movement away from divestment, explains that there were problems “finding information we were supposed to have access to,” and that many of the supposed reports were never found.
By not actively informing students about its sustainability practices, LC is avoiding accountability for removing a policy advocated for by the student body. While administrators can say that they will try to divest from high emission companies, the lack of follow-through and commitment to keeping students informed resembles greenwashing practices. Divestment and net-zero strategies can and should exist to hold our school accountable for investing ethically.
Many students come to LC expecting sustainability and transparency from a progressive administration, but that can only be created through advocacy from current students. Exclusive divestment is only a piece of the puzzle, but net-zero doesn’t hold the school accountable to its goals. We must find a middle ground. Major changes to a policy designed by and fought for by students should not be kept quiet, and it is our responsibility to demand greater transparency from our institution.