Dear Father Jenkins
Letter to the Editor | Monday, October 10, 2016
Dear Father Jenkins,
We write to broach the topic of Notre Dame’s recently announced sustainability strategy. We believe that this topic should have been brought to us during strategy development since, as you know, we are deeply invested in the outcome of this strategy as current students at the University, as members of the local community and as citizens of the planet.
Despite the press release describing this as a “new” and “updated” strategy, we are fully aware that Notre Dame’s carbon reduction goal remains exactly what it was in the first strategy, released six years ago in 2010. At that point, it was shamefully the least ambitious carbon reduction goal to be found among the nation’s top 20 universities or the top Catholic universities across the country. Now in 2016, in the context of Laudato Si, the Paris Agreement and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it is even more shameful.
We applaud the long overdue decision to abandon the use of coal by the end of the decade. However, the alternative should not be increased reliance on natural gas, given the risk that fracking poses to our drinking water and the mounting evidence that fracking releases quantities of methane that put its carbon footprint on par with that of coal. A commitment to 25 percent renewables by 2050 only sounds impressive to those unaware that other major research universities, including Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, have committed to achieving carbon neutrality well before 2050. As current students of the University, we realize that by the time we are in our 40s, Notre Dame will only be a quarter renewable. This timeline is incredibly disappointing, short-sighted and demonstrates irresponsible leadership given the immediate action this crisis demands.
We are particularly disappointed that divestment of the University endowment from fossil fuels has no place in the updated strategy. We find disingenuous in the extreme your repeated excuse that it is hypocritical to divest from fossil fuels while continuing to use them. Parishes, colleges and cities that have divested around the world are aware that they use fossil fuels, but also aware that fossil fuel companies utilize their enormous profits to sow doubt about basic science, to make personal attacks on climate scientists, and to maintain and create public policy that propagates the fossil fuel economy through massive campaign contributions. In short, they are waging war on the scientific method, civil discourse and the basic functioning of our democracy. By remaining invested, Notre Dame is aiding and abetting this war on science and democracy in the interest of profits.
Additionally, the “activist shareholder argument” is specious. It asserts that by keeping investments in fossil fuel companies, Notre Dame has proportional rights to vote on motions put to the ownership, either by the board or shareholders, and can urge from within that fossil fuel companies transition to renewable technology. The argument fails because while that strategy has had impact in some instances, in this case, Notre Dame is not taking on the role of an activist shareholder, and fossil fuel companies are not listening. By joining the divestment movement, Notre Dame could make the only statement that fossil fuel companies can hear, and could begin to provide actual leadership in creating a world unleashed from our destructive and systemic addiction on fossil fuels in our everyday lives.
Lastly, we are not ignorant to the notion that divesting Notre Dame endowments from fossil fuel companies will not necessarily bankrupt the companies, halt fossil fuel consumption and prevent climate change. However, we cannot underestimate the scope of Notre Dame’s influence in changing attitudes and providing leadership on the urgency of addressing climate change. Under USCCB guidelines, Notre Dame has already committed itself to ethical investing by refusing to financially support companies that are, for example, in the business of firearms sales or manufacturing, or in the business of providing abortion or contraceptives, or pornography. These companies, just like fossil fuel companies promote business practices that stand in stark contrast with Notre Dame values. If you are truly concerned about the hypocrisy, you need not look further than Notre Dame’s claim to being a moral institution while profiting from the wreckage of God’s earth.
Pope Francis has told us, “Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience.” And yet, the sustainability initiative on this revered Catholic University campus is staffed by amateurs and relegated to a backwater of University operations. It belongs in your office, and should be considered in every aspect of University planning. It is not acceptable to us that the University’s sustainability initiative has achieved little of note since the 2010 strategy was publicized, and it should be unacceptable to you as well. We urge you to take up the mantel of leadership in protecting the sustainability of God’s handiwork and begin prioritizing the health of people and planet over profit.
Fossil Free ND
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.