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Singer, Oppenheimer, others discuss fossil fuel divestment at NYC panel

At a contentious panel at the Princeton Club of New York on Wednesday, University faculty and alumni debated whether the University should divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies in New York City.

Former Princeton University Investment Company President Randall Hack ’69  rejected the idea that University investment decisions should be based on environmental calculations. He explained that it was important for the University to generate returns on its endowment through wise long-term investments because students and faculty depend on them so heavily.

He noted that the University does not have “unfettered” control over the use of its endowment because donations are often given to be used for particular purposes, and University funds are often overseen by private managers.

Peter Singer, a University bioethics professor, disagreed with Hack’s assessment of the ethical dilemma, arguing that environmental concerns should play a role in investment decisions.

“One part of the ethical framework would be the ethical requirement to invest funds wisely for a high return over a very long time,” Singer said. “But clearly the reason we are here today is to consider that there are other ethical restraints that are relevant to the question of the fossil fuel industry.”

Others raised concerns over whether the University could justify an ethically-based decision to divest from fossil fuel companies.

President and CEO of NRG Energy David Crane ’81, who noted that he is the CEO of the sixth-largest carbon emitter in the Unites States pointed out that the University could do more to reduce its own environmental footprint.

“How does a university that itself relies on fossil fuels justify divestment?” Crane said. “When I was on a board to review the University’s commitment to sustainability, one of the things I was baffled by was the lack of electric car charging … Anything that would affect the behavior of the students or professors could not be touched.”

Hack also questioned how the University would define environmentally-damaging companies.

“How do you define an energy company? Are the shipping companies that travel offshore to bring food and supplies to our men and women [energy companies]?” Hack said. “How far does the ‘do no harm’ ethos extend?”

Geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer said that while divestiture may not have a huge impact on global environmental conditions it could send a valuable message about the University’s position on climate change and fossil fuels.

“These things aren’t necessarily tradeoffs. I don’t think divestiture will solve the climate issue,” Oppenheimer said. “It could affect the community and it is an issue that Princeton must deal with.”

“A Panel on Energy, the Environment and Endowment Investing,” was organized as part of an ongoing joint project by the student group, Students United for a Responsible Global Environment and alumni group, Princeton Progressives. Co-president of SURGE, Stephen Moch ’14, said SURGE and the Princeton Progressives have been in contact since December working on how to engage alumni on the issue of divestiture.

“The most important conclusion from the panel was that this is an [issue] we need to address,” Moch said. “We can’t continue to contaminate or ignore the fact that climate change is there, and we may have to reevaluate our fossil fuel assets.”

“We tried to have a pretty balanced and knowledgeable panel that would be able to speak about the issue with expertise,” Alison Holtzschue ’82, co-founder and Vice President of Princeton Progressives, said.

The panel was moderated by Carl Ferenbach III ’64, a current director of PRINCO and a  University trustee. It was hosted by the Princeton Association of New York City.

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that current PRINCO President Andrew Golden participated in the panel. He did not; former president Randall Hack ’69 did. Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the position of Carl Ferenbach III ’64 within PRINCO. He is a current director. The ‘Prince’ regrets the errors. 

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