Divest from denial

In 2013, President Paxson wrote of divestment from coal that, “The existence of social harm is a necessary but not sufficient rationale for Brown to divest: Once social harm is established, divestiture may be warranted if either divestiture is likely to help reduce the harm or the harm is sufficiently grave.”

The social harm caused by climate denial is clearly “sufficiently grave.” Research by our own faculty reveals how climate denial campaigns starting well before the 1997 Kyoto Accords have systematically undermined all international attempts at stringent emissions standards, by crippling the political ability of the US to contribute to those attempts. In 1997, a coordinated global post-carbon transition would have been difficult but not an overwhelming task; now, the generation to which Brown students belong knows that barring a miracle, their lives will be marked by the suffering and fundamental instability brought about by a rapidly heating world. 


The argument for divestment from denial goes even beyond this: at its root, climate denial represents not only a direct threat to our democracy and the futures of our students (and the children of our faculty and staff), but also to the deepest interests of our university. Climate denial campaigns haven’t just sowed discord in the political process; they undermined trust in the scientific knowledge created at Brown and other institutions of higher learning. They politicized scientific fact to an unprecedented degree and directly threatened the safety and careers of many research scientists. Under various guises, they continue to do so today. Officials at the highest levels of government have been persuaded by these campaigns and are now going so far as to threaten public funding for universities researching climate change. For example, the Republican governor of Alaska attempted to decimate the state university system in 2019, which is one of the foremost climate change research centers.


Brown cannot afford to pretend that these threats do not exist. Yet the executives and shareholders of companies engaged in climate denial have so far received remarkably little response from the universities that have been the central target of their attacks. Divestment will be a powerful first step to countering the forces of denial, for three reasons.


First, divestment sends a signal directly to the executives and board members who have the most sway over a company’s political and public relations practices. It seems that attempts at shareholder engagement have rarely had any impact; in this case speaking with our money will. 


Second, divestment from climate denial will send a novel signal to the rest of the financial world, which has so far only conceived of divestment as a means of distancing funds from fossil fuel companies; as well as to other universities, demonstrating that we can and should take bold steps to protect the process of knowledge creation and ensure the political process against misinformation.

Third, divestment as a public message tells the broader public and the media that we, as a community of educators and students, will not stand for the toxic and oppressive interference by self-interested corporation in our collective future.