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May 21, 2024

Divestment sparks on-campus debate: professors and students discuss climate change solutions

By ANDREA MICHALOWSKY | April 25, 2013

Refuel Our Future, a group dedicated to raising awareness on climate change, and Alpha Kappa Psi, the Hopkins business fraternity, co-hosted a debate about the possibility of divesting the University’s endowment of fossil fuels stocks on Monday to commemorate Earth Day.

The event took place in the Charles Commons Ballroom. Approximately 100 undergraduate students, graduate students and professors were in attendance. A professor and a student in the Woodrow Wilson Debate Council sat behind each table, ready to argue over the merits of divestment.

Divestment is essentially the opposite of investment —it is the withdrawal of money previously invested in companies. In this case, it refers to moving money invested in stocks at fossil fuel companies to stocks in other sectors.

Only a portion of Hopkins’s endowment is invested in stocks, and less than one percent of that is invested with fossil fuel companies; however, with an endowment worth over 2.5 billion, that number is still significant.

Cindy Parker, co-director of the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Program on Sustainability and Health and director of the Global Environmental Change and Sustainability program, began the debate by speaking about the urgency of climate change and the necessity for the Hopkins community to be actively involved in shaping policy.

“[We need to] jumpstart the fossil fuel divestment movement,” she said.

Bruce Hamilton, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Economics, spoke for the opposition. He agreed that climate change is a pressing issue that must be mitigated; however, he argued that divestment was not the best option. Rather, he believes that Hopkins students and faculty should advocate for a carbon tax. Other suggestions he posed included putting solar panels on roofs, encouraging vegetarianism and lowering the temperature on thermostats. Hamilton argued that pushing for divestment would create a false goal and sense of self-satisfaction, thereby inhibiting further activism.

The debaters did not dwell on whether climate change is a problem that requires action — all of the panelists agreed that it is— but they also did not clarify the many issues surrounding divestment.

In his rebuttal, junior Oliver Simon, the student supporting divestment alongside Parker, accused Hamilton of presenting a carbon tax as a magical solution. He also claimed that turning down the thermostats was a comically minor solution.

Sophomore David Israel, the student debating with Hamilton, argued that the University does support efforts to combat climate change, but divestment is not the best method. Rather, Hopkins should lobby Congress and use the stocks to influence the companies.

Parker said that the University must use its money in alignment with Hopkins’s mission, and thus divest. Israel in turn told the audience that Hopkins’ primary obligation is to its students, so it should accrue as much wealth as possible, even from fossil fuel companies.

Israel pointed out that divesting would have little effect on the companies. When asked about economic loss, Hamilton confirmed that divesting would have little effect on the endowment. Thus, it would simply be a political statement, a means to raise awareness about fossil fuels and climate change and demonstrate Hopkins’ leadership in this arena.

Parker related it to the tobacco industry, where Hopkins led the way in divestment. She used the example of South Africa to demonstrate the potential efficacy of this method. Indeed, Hampshire College has already divested and student groups at Harvard University and Tufts University, among others, are pushing for similar action.

The last question, raised by a cameraman at the back of the room, suggested that a carbon tax would burst “the carbon bubble,” making divestment necessary from an economic point of view. Hamilton agreed with this statement, and the debate ended on that final note of agreement.

After the event, Sophomore Jon Smeton, President of Refuel our Future, stressed the importance of debates like these to educate people on the pressing issues revolving around climate change and their immediate as well as distant impacts.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that they came out still debating the topic and that they came into their rooms and debated their roommates,” Smeton said. “The fact that these kinds of conversations are happening shows that, at least in that respect, we have been successful.”

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