By Christopher White, National Correspondent
NEW YORK — Over the next 10 years, Georgetown University will divest from fossil fuels – a move heralded by Catholic environmental activists as putting Pope Francis’s ecological vision into action.
The announcement was made the week of Feb. 3 following a vote by the Jesuit institution’s board of directors. The decision allows the university to divest from public securities tied to fossil fuels over the next five years and private investments over the next ten years.
In announcing the decision, the university said they would make investments that “target a market rate of return in renewable energy, energy efficiency and related areas while freezing new endowment investments in companies or funds whose primary business is the exploration or extraction of fossil fuels.”
The vote, taken Feb. 6, comes after a proposal from GU Fossil Free that was sent to the university’s Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility, which ultimately made the recommendation to the university’s board.
“Animated by our Catholic and Jesuit identity, our University has sought to strengthen opportunities for our community to contribute to a more sustainable future by fostering dialogue, research, education, and the engagement of all members of our community,” said Georgetown President John J. DeGioia in a statement following the announcement.
“This decision by our board of directors advances the deep commitment we have to sustainability and our efforts to respond to urgent global environmental challenges,” he continued.
In another statement, Michael Barry, Georgetown’s chief investment officer, said that their endowment has already benefited in recent years from investments in renewable energy projects and described the board’s vote as another sign of the university’s commitment to sustainability.
“Climate change, in addition to threatening our planet, is increasing the risk of investing in oil and gas companies, as we expect a more volatile range of financial outcomes,” said Barry.
“We will continue to evaluate the efforts of these companies, and be hopeful that many will move further toward contributing to a sustainable future,” he said.
While the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities does not have an official policy on sustainability, they have previously applauded Catholic institutions that have taken similar steps. In 2014, the University of Dayton became the first Catholic university in the country to divest from fossil fuels, and in September 2018, Seattle University became the first Jesuit institution to do so, voting to divest over a five year period.
Since Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ was issued calling for fossils fuels to “be progressively replaced without delay,” hundreds of Catholic institutions around the globe have chosen to divest from companies tied to fossil fuels and pursue more ethical investments.
John Carr, director of Georgetown’s Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life, who serves as a member of the Committee on Investments and Social Responsibility told The Tablet that he believes the vote to be “a great example of the ‘Francis factor’ in action.”
“Laudato Sí offered principles, direction and urgency that brought Georgetown students, President DeGioia and the Board together in this leadership step to demonstrate care for God’s creation,” said Carr.
Christina Leaño, associate director of the Global Catholic Climate Movement told The Tablet that “these Catholic organizations see that investing in coal, oil, and natural gas isn’t just an unsustainable financial decision – it’s inherently incompatible with the values that we hold dear.”
“That’s why four bishops’ conferences, 12 archdioceses, 18 dioceses, Caritas Internationalis and seven national Caritas agencies, Catholic banks with more than €7 billion on their balance sheets, and dozens of religious orders and communities have divested,” she added.
Leaño described Georgetown’s vote as “a courageous decision to grapple with its past and move forward toward justice.”
“Our faith teaches us that hope is possible. As seas rise, deserts grow, and malarial mosquitoes spread, leadership like Georgetown’s is needed now more than ever,” she said.
Similarly, Dan Misleh, founding executive director of the Catholic Climate Covenant said that while the organization does not have an official position on divestment, he applauds Georgetown for providing an “important witness.”
“I think this dialogue about the shape of our future, our children’s future, is so important,” Misleh told The Tablet. “For institutions to consider shifting investment strategies to support more sustainable ways to produce and conserve energy is critical for the long term health of our common home.”