accountability proposal

Divesting from Climate Deniers: What it Means and How We Got Here

Tomorrow, February 15th at 1pm President Spar and members of the Presidential Task Force to Examine Divestment will hold a final town hall. In eighteen days, the Barnard Board of Trustees will vote, either to accept the Task Force’s recommendation and divest from climate deniers, or to reject the work of students, staff, faculty and administrators who spent months, if not years, coming to that recommendation. The board will vote, either to stand up against climate deniers, or remain complicit at a time when scientific research, environmental policy and facts themselves are under threat from the Trump administration. The town hall tomorrow will be the last opportunity for the public to ask questions and give comments before March 4th, when the Board of Trustees will finally vote on whether or not to divest Barnard’s endowment from fossil fuel companies.

For those who will not be able to attend the town hall tomorrow, Divest Barnard wants to explain the meaning of “divesting from climate deniers” (aka “Option 4”), the challenges Divest Barnard faced in supporting Option 4, and the gravity of the Board vote in 18 days.


Over the course of a year, the Task Force on Divestment came up with five possible recommendations to the Board, ranging from no action to full divestment from fossil fuels. By December of last year, the debate had boiled down to a choice between Option 5: full divestment and Option 4: divest from fossil fuel companies who deny climate change or obstruct climate action. The Task Force (including the representative from Divest Barnard) unanimously recommended Option 4 to the Board of Trustees at the end of last semester, and on March 4th, this is the proposal that the Board will either accept or reject.

Options proposed by task force


Choosing to support Option 4 was a question of strategy rather than morals.

Even so, the choice to let go of our demand for full divestment was not an easy one. Our campaign was founded as part of the broader struggle for climate justice, which is based on the belief that solutions to the climate crisis must be broad and intersectional. The root cause of the current climate crisis is an extractive economy fueled by a capitalist market, and the prioritization of profit over people. As a result, the fight for climate justice involves the intersecting struggle for economic justice, racial justice, immigrant justice and gender justice, as much as for classic environmentalist issues. The concept of climate justice implies that a sustainable environment cannot be possible without sustainable economies and communities too.


In our view, any company that makes the majority of their revenue from fossil fuels is perpetuating—and will likely fight to maintain—a fossil fuel dependent economy. Therefore, the proposal to differentiate companies based on whether or not they “actively deny climate science” seemed inapplicable. To imply that there are “good” fossil fuel companies and “bad” fossil fuel companies was an extreme contradiction to the deeply held motivations behind our years of organizing.

By the time Option 4 and Option 5 were the main options discussed by the Task Force, it became clear that there was a rift between student members of the Task Force, who predominantly supported Option 5 and the faculty, staff, administrators and trustee members, who predominantly supported Option 4. In order for the Task Force to reach a consensus, something had to give.


There were numerous one-on-one conversations between Divest members over the weeks leading up to the final Task Force vote. We scheduled a special internal meeting to deliberate and decide how we should vote. In preparation for our decision we held a “self-education week” so that the full Divest Barnard membership would be prepared for an in-depth, democratic discussion, particularly because we knew that in part this choice represented a debate of our deepest values.

During the Divest Barnard deliberation on Option 4 the questions that dominated the discussion were “If we choose to support Option 4, how do we know the Board won’t use an extremely weak definition of ‘denier’? No fossil fuel companies openly deny climate change anymore!” and “If we only divest from climate deniers, can we call that a victory when our goal has always been full divestment?”

We were full of doubt. We were concerned that students would be removed from the process of defining climate change deniers after the Task Force ended in December. Two years worth of our labor was in the balance and we had no way of knowing what the right decision was. By the end of that meeting, we had two outcomes: 1) our reps on the Task Force should vote for Option 4, and 2) we had some demands (available in full here).

Partial demands


In addition to recommending Option 4, the Task Force recommended that Barnard develop a broader Climate Action Plan and potentially a Sustainability officer to organize this effort. If the Board votes in favor of both recommendations, there will be significantly more work to be done to carry them out.


Divest Barnard feels that the best way forward is to establish two long-term committees: One Divestment Implementation/ Oversight Committee to define “climate denier” and oversee the divestment process and another Climate Action Committee to develop and implement a campus-wide Climate Action campaign. These two committees could represent a turning point in transparent communication and collaboration between students, faculty, staff, administrators and Board members in an entirely new way on this campus that can gain from the resources, insights and skills of every group. They could have the legitimacy to carry out change that lone departments or student-only sustainability groups cannot.
Members of the (now defunct) Task Force are laying the groundwork for defining “climate denier,” and are looking to the Union of Concerned Scientists and their “Climate Accountability Scorecard” for guidance. UCS’s criteria is appealing because it centers the perspective of climate scientists at a time when scientists are under very real threats to their work from the Trump administration, and also uplifts research and academic integrity in an era when fact itself is under threat. Other organizations like the World Resources Institute, Columbia’s Earth Institute and Fossil Free Indexes (the author of the annual Carbon Underground Top 200 list used by offer other outlooks on how to define “climate denier.”


Like the widely used Top 200 list, Barnard could create a public “Blacklist of Climate Deniers” that could be a resource, not just for divestment campaigns, but for politicians, political groups, and consumers at large to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their lies and obstruction of climate action in addition to their environmental and human rights violations.
accountability proposal


Through Option 4, Barnard College has the chance to mobilize other college administrations like those at Harvard, Carleton College, and many others who have rejected divestment specifically because they do not believe it ties into their academic mission. Barnard Divest has the chance to offer a new path for student divestment campaigns to pressure their administrations from a fresh angle. We have an option, which could propel the existing #ExxonKnew campaign, and represent the Academy’s call to arms in defense of honesty and reason. Our own president Spar signed a letter to President Trump claiming to “recognize our academic and ethical responsibilities to current and future generations to take aggressive climate action”. Our administration has the opportunity to deliver on this promise or to fail our generation. On March 4th, 2017 we will learn on what side of history the Barnard Board of Trustees fall.