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Divestment and the need for moral leadership on climate

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On Monday, thousands of students and faculty at colleges, high schools, and even two middle schools across the nation walked out of class to reject the deadly climate denialism of the Trump administration and demand moral leadership from our institutions.

Tuesday, the need for that leadership became even more clear. Donald Trump signed executive actions that attempt to restart the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He took this action despite clear opposition from people whose land, livelihoods, and communities will be devastated, climate scientists warning of disastrous climate impacts, and hundreds of thousands across the country who organized and protested to stop them.

This should not come as a surprise. Trump has invested heavily in both these pipelines (a spokesman says he has resolved these conflicts of interest, but refused to provide evidence). He’s also appointed Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, along with a slew of climate deniers, billionaires, and white supremacists to his cabinet. At noon on Inauguration Day, all mentions of climate change (along with pages on civil rights and LGBTQ rights) disappeared from the White House website. And these actions are likely just the beginning. Trump’s poised to eliminate all federal climate regulations and throw out our commitments in the Paris Climate Accord.

Over the coming months, Trump and the GOP will continue to promote policies to bail out the fossil fuel industry. They are authorizing unnecessary dirty pipelines in order to enrich Big Oil executives who were, until this election, facing the slow decline of their industry. They want more money and more power to take people’s land. This will contaminate more water and sacrifice more lives.

In turbulent times here and around the world, institutions of higher education have played critical roles in standing up for rights and justice against authoritarian and repressive governments. Throughout our own history, Swarthmore has been a leader in social justice and stood up for what was right, even if it wasn’t popular. At this moment, colleges like Swarthmore must be the moral leaders our president is not, on climate justice, and on a range of social justice issues. We must be a moral anchor and a beacon of hope in these trying times.

Our $1.9 billion endowment is one of our most powerful tools for showing this moral leadership. By taking our investments out of the industry, we are saying it is wholly incompatible with our values as an institution. It isn’t about hurting share prices, but rather about stripping the fossil fuel industry of its social license to operate. We’ve already seen evidence that this is tremendously effective. five years ago, fossil fuel divestment was started right here on this campus. Today, the movement has divested $5 trillion.

The fossil fuel industry’s response shows the movement’s success. In 2014, the Australian Coal Council tried to make divestment illegal because it was threatening their profits. The Alberta Oil Magazine warned executives “to ignore divestment at their own peril.” Last year, the Independent Petroleum Association of America began an extensive PR campaign called “Divestment Facts” to discourage administrations and students from supporting our movement. The morning of the national day of action, they urged students to #StayInClass. When the Board of Managers said “no” to divestment, the Independent Petroleum Association of America applauded the decision in the press. As this industry continues to partner with and profit from the Trump administration, it is past time that Swarthmore makes sure we are no longer applauded by the fossil fuel industry.

As Trump’s administration and the fossil fuel industry continue to push through policies that will put millions of lives on the line and threaten our future, it will be hard for us to show credible leadership when we are investing in the fossil fuel industry, in companies like Dakota Access that are trampling indigenous rights and in companies like Exxon that have been popularizing for decades the climate denialism that Trump espouses. We need to use every tool at our disposal to stand against this industry and this president. By divesting, we can make a powerful statement: this industry’s business model that profits off economic and racial injustice and that is wrecking the climate is incompatible with our values as an institution.

We know divestment cannot happen overnight, but there are steps we can take right now. Some of our endowment is held in separately-managed accounts. As Board Investments Committee Chair Chris Niemczewski said in the Spring 2015 Swarthmore Alumni Bulletin, with these funds, “it is easy for a client to come to the investment manager with specific needs or requests, such as for a fossil-free portfolio.” We also know that many of our other managers of more traditional commingled accounts have fossil-free options, meaning that to divest those accounts we just need to call the managers and ask them to transfer our money to one of their fossil free funds. This would avoid the major challenge to divest raised by the Board, which is that Swarthmore would need to switch our investment managers.

When the President of the United States is actively threatening communities and the very future of this planet, there is no room for neutrality. We must take prompt action and we must show leadership. The clearest, most powerful way to do that is by ending our investments in the fossil fuel industry. Next Wednesday, Mountain Justice are meeting with President Smith and we look forward to working with her and the Board to take some of these common sense steps to stop our support of this industry.

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