Tim Weiskel speaks at the Firing Line Debate on Fossil Fuel Divestment on March 4, 2020.
Michael Curcio: What are your initial thoughts on divestment?
Tim Weiskel: It’s interesting the way the CIO here, David Swenson seems to cite The Ethical Investor published
in 1972 as something that was formative in his own background. He claims to have gone to school here and been very influenced by Boener and John Simon. He doesn’t quite realize it because he was in middle school at the time, but I wrote the first draft of the book as an undergraduate in 1968. If you read the introduction carefully, it basically says, this came out of discussions with undergraduates in 1968 and 69 and then developed into a course that they taught in the Fall of 69 with John Simon and William Boener. I had already graduated when they started teaching it, but I got one of the Rhodes scholarships, so I was out of the country for seven years and that was when it became a book and a big deal.
MC: Since you helped write The Ethical Investor and now Swenson says he takes influence from it, do you think Swenson takes the spirit of the text to heart? Since the text came from conversations with undergrads and right now undergrads are asking Swenson to divest, should he listen to them? Should he not listen to them? What do you think?
TW: I can understand that he has a little bit of a stiff profile because the thing has moved on a bit from when he was first introduced to it. And anybody who thinks the same that they did 20, 30, 40, or in this case 50 years ago is automatically out of it. I don’t think his own thoughts have developed as fast as the problem and that’s a bit unfortunate because there is no reason why he should oppose what he’s been put in the position of opposing. If he examined his own early enthusiasm about it, I think he’d come back to a more reasonable suggestion. But I gather there have been some exchanges with various groups on campus about not doing enough or not doing things fast enough.
MC: I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what are like the criteria you think that must be met to divest from anything?
TW: Well I think we can go from worst case to better cases and the worst case is where you’re profiting from something has known and predictable consequences that harm society. You know, that’s a pretty broad category, but it covers everything from mass incarceration to the use of fossil fuels.
MC: In terms of defining profit, does that include anything beyond the risk-free rate of return or are you talking about absolute profit?
TW: It’s not just because it’s making a higher rate of return than another asset that it’s objectionable. It’s objectionable because it’s supporting the wrong thing. I mean Morgan Chase at this point has supported since the Paris agreement fossil fuel ventures on a scale previously unimaginable and for that reason, on the 23rd of April, people are going to be in every Chase Bank demonstrating again the financing of the destruction of the ecosystem.
MC: In past cases of divestment, there’s been a clear solution to the problems. When the tobacco companies targeted minors in advertisements, the solution was to stop targeting minors in tobacco ads. What do you think is the solution for climate change and would we need one to divest?
TW: Well, I would pose it as a divest-invest question. We’re not asking Yale or anybody else to put the money in a pillow somewhere, but rather to take the money out of fossil fuels in order to reinvest it somewhere else. The reinvestment is equally important as divestment because if you get out of fossil fuels and put the money into land grabs in Africa, that’s not defensible either. You have got to look for the reinvestment opportunity that is sustainable and actually promoting the movement of the whole culture away from non-renewables towards renewables. There’s plenty of wind and plenty of solar to invest in.
You’d be deaf, dumb and blind as a CIO if you didn’t realize that the biggest profit margins are being made in the alternate energies–not in fossil fuels. The only people that are stuck there are the people without the imagination to call up the investors and say, listen, take my money out of it. It’s not a question of just pulling back a little; it’s a question of taking it all out and putting it all into something that’s more sustainable.
MC: Speaking of positive investment, do you think institutions like Yale should consider investing in like community development loan funds or CDFIs or things that would have smaller financial returns but potentially make New Haven a safer and better place to live?
TW: Yes, well definitely. But again, they have to be very careful about where they’re putting the money, because all of New Haven is going to be underwater in 2075, meaning well-meaning projects in large parts of New Haven will be gone. There’s no question that sea levels will rise, just how fast they will rise…. Every student should be focused on how to move their culture towards a logic of sustainability. Whether that would include local community groups… of course it would at some point. All politics is local.
MC: If Yale were to divest from carbon, do you think it should send a clear message to the government that they need to take really strong action on climate change?
TW: Oh yeah. Well in part because that’s what businesses want. Businesses are not averse to paying taxes. They just need to know in terms of their own planning, how those taxes will be phased in and how they can work it into their own operating plan. They’re concerned about abrupt shifts of any kind. But also because the whole point of divestment is it’s pretty much symbolic. It’s only going to make a difference if you’re seen to be part of a trend and seem to be supporting a trend. At this point, it’s a little embarrassing for Yale to be behind the trend and it’s quite embarrassing that it has to come up at the Yale-Harvard game… and then there are these stupid kids who write editorials about, “Oh it’s isn’t it too bad to have interrupted this grand tradition….” Well, it’s too bad they’re interrupting the grand tradition so you might have a livable future. Right? Is that too bad? [pause] You know it’s already too late. That’s what’s not being told to the students at this point. The optimism of the divestment movement is a little overstayed. We’re not likely to be able to do anything that will be registrable in your lifetime or that of your children that will make any difference. And that’s the nature of the tragedy we’re up against. There’s no return on what it is that we’re asking you to do.
If it were up to human beings, there would be no Sequoia trees. Not because we’d cut them all down but because we’d never plant them. Because they don’t grow fast enough to give us any return. And that’s the problem of working in an ecosystem. We depend upon a system whose regeneration we are oblivious to. And we still think that we can maximize an ecosystem for human benefit. If you come out of college thinking that humans are the center of the ecosystem, you might as well have not gone to school. You could have learned more by walking around in the park. If the total impact of all of that time, money and effort spent on higher education is the amplification of anthropocentric arrogance…. I mean just look at Harvard. Arrogance is their main product. That’s the one thing they’ve managed to convey to everybody through all their curriculum, through all their courses, across all departments. Every student comes out with this uniform level of arrogance towards everything and everybody. That’s not a desirable goal and in fact it’s a waste of the investment in your education.
MC: How do you approach this problem? Because it doesn’t seem like anything we do at this point is going to have a major impact because governments move slowly and like it’s always the next person’s problem. What do you say to conservative types similar to the one you’ll be debating today who are skeptical of divestments and even climate change’s potential impact.
TW: Well I’ll be interested in how he defends the position. Because basically it’s a suicidal position. If he doesn’t understand why fossil fuels are putting the world in jeopardy, then he isn’t paying attention. What you have to combat is not any specific objection they’ve got but they’re over-arching assumptions about the way the world works. Because you’re not going to convince them. You have to go about it a different way. The question is not more evidence to convince but what’s going to convert them. It’s kind of like a funny thing happened to me on the way to Damascus sort of thing. In religious terms it’s talked about like the scales falling from your eyes. I presume that he’s going to argue something today about the maximum immediate return is not substantial…
MC: Do you think people disagree on the math of climate change or divestment?
TW: Well I’d be interested to see what he’s disagreeing on. It seems to me that people at AEI are the front office of the Koch brothers and they’re basically trying to forestall any move away from fossil fuels because they’re making millions of dollars a day. It’s nothing more subtle than that. These guys are agents not to keep but to confuse the world. The fact is that they’ve got to look at themselves in the mirror eventually. I mean maybe not today, or tomorrow or in the time they have to pay off a mortgage, but once they do, they’ve got to confront a life of either willful lying or culpable ignorance. And culpable ignorance is pretty hard to live down. You realize you should’ve learned certain things and you didn’t and didn’t bother to find out.