John F. Kennedy once stated, “One person can make a difference, and everyone should try.” A number of Boston College students willing to make a difference turned out Wednesday night for the Fossil Free vs. UGBC Debate on the Issue of Divestment. The debaters, Erin Sutton and TJ Buckley of BC Fossil Free and Alex Tingle and Matt Alonsozana of UGBC, fought their points for about an hour and a half this past Wednesday evening for an inquisitive audience.
The debate centered upon the stance that “Boston College should immediately halt new investments in the top 200 fossil fuel firms and divest from those firms within five years.” Fossil Free spoke in support of this stance, citing historical instances of divestment as an instigator of social and cultural change. UGBC spoke in opposition, and indicated that divestment would make little impact in the grand scheme of climate change as well as harming BC’s own goals and financial reach as a top-ranked institution.
“BC has a chance to stand up for what’s right…and really make a difference,” he said.The position of BC Fossil Free in support of divestment began with Buckley’s affirmative speech, in which he stated that it would be “financially feasible and prudent” for Boston College to act in combat against these statistics by considering divestment from fossil fuels that inevitably contribute to detrimental climate conditions.
Sutton echoed these sentiments in her affirmative speech later in the evening; in sixteen years, she said, our nation’s greenhouse gas budget will be close to blown. The United States is well on its way to burning through all of its fossil fuel reserves, in spite of statistics that show only one-fifth can afford to be burned for the rest of time if the global climate is to be stabilized in the future. The goal of divestment, she said, is not solely financial impact but to “remove the social license” on fossil fuels.
“It is wrong to wreck the planet and absolutely criminal to profit from that wreckage,” Sutton said. “Is it radical to want a stable climate and a livable planet for our children?”
Buckley was cross-examined by Alonsozana and Sutton by Tingle. UGBC’s questions began by centering upon fossil fuels as cheap sources of energy for impoverished populations worldwide, populations that could not afford to shift to more expensive alternative options. Continued investment in these fuels, Alonsozana argued, is a must for people who need fossil fuels to survive in their day-to-day lives.
Tingle, in his cross-examination, asked Sutton what the next steps would be if the divestment plan were enacted; Sutton said that as a big-name university, BC could make a statement, and returned, “What happens when we make a statement?”
In near unison, Sutton answered her own question with “Everybody responds,” and Tingle responded with “Nobody cares.”
This tension was articulated in much of UGBC’s opposing response to divestment. In Tingle’s negative speech, he quoted Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, in saying that “The endowment is not an instrument to impel social or political change.”
What’s more, the pool of funds divested from BC would be too small to make a significant difference. The consumption and production of fossil fuels and devices utilizing them would remain unchanged. “Symbolic actions are being substituted for the truly effective,” Tingle stated.
Alonsozana also indicated his view that good intentions without common sense or evidence could only carry so far. Divestment, he said, would undermine BC’s resources – students benefit educationally from the resources provided by the endowment, and investing in fossil fuels provides real financial returns. He noted that a majority of institutions and organizations have been hesitant to employ divestment, and that its moral position is not enough to constitute its financial shortcomings.
Sutton cross-examined Tingle, and Buckley crossed Alonsozana; the affirmative cross-examination focused largely on misconceptions surrounding Fossil Free’s goals in divestment. Sutton asked Tingle what he thought the intention of the divestment initiative was, and disagreed with his response that divestment aimed to reduce the use of fossil fuels and promote renewable energy. While those issues are certainly part of the greater goal, Sutton emphasized that BC Fossil Free aims primarily for increased stigmatization of fossil fuel industries.
Buckley, in his cross-examination, asked Alonsozana who funded a particular study that found fossil fuels to provide higher returns, to which Alonsozana reluctantly responded that it was a petroleum company. Buckley also pointed out the success of Boston University’s returns on investments in sustainable energy.
With that, the debate shifted into a question-and-answer period. Sophomore Eric Roy, for instance, introduced himself as a member of BC Students for Sexual Health, whose condom distribution campaign made waves last year with the university and world news outlets.
Based on this experience with an initially unrecognized organization, Roy questioned UGBC’s position that divestment could not cause significant social impact. Other questions surrounded the role of divestment in making industries appear “undesirable,” or the likelihood of other universities following BC’s lead if divestment were to go through. The dialogue was lively, with both teams of debaters lending opinions and more students raising hands than could be called on in the given timeframe.
Ultimately, the night left its audience with plenty to think about in regard to divestment, social change, and the extent to which realistic expectations must play a role. The dialogue between BC Fossil Free and UGBC is certainly not over, and the debaters and their student body will be sure to keep the conversation alive as Boston College moves into the future.