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Professor Smithey arrested for protesting at energy company headquarters

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Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies Lee Smithey was arrested on March 29 for failing to disperse during a protest calling on the Philadelphia Electric Company to transition 20 percent of their energy distribution to rooftop and community-owned solar by 2025.

Smithey stood outside PECO’s Philadelphia headquarters with around 60 others, including former Lang Visiting Professor George Lakey, as a part of a three-day campaign co-hosted by the Earth Quaker Action Team. According to its website, the grassroots, nonviolent action group challenges beneficiaries of the current energy system to turn away from fossil fuels.

Smithey became active in the group in 2015 because of his belief that energy companies should invest in local communities and decentralized solar power, especially given the pace of climate change and extreme levels of income and social inequality in the country.

“Emissions rose in 2017 and are predicted to rise again in 2018,” he said. “That means civil society has to step up and spur change in the institutions in our own communities, especially in the absence of sufficient political environmental leadership.”

Smithey called nonviolent action and conflict transformation his primary fields of teaching and research for over two decades. Smithey was compelled by environmental justice and climate change concerns to become more active. Now, he supports Sunrise Swarthmore and fossil fuel divestment on-campus and participating in EQAT off-campus.

We feel that many institutions must take responsibility for a clean energy transition that meets the challenges of climate change endangering vulnerable populations here in the United States and around the world,” Smithey said, adding that about 0.5 percent of PECO’s current distribution is solar.

March 27, EQAT’s first day of action, was called a “Day of Mourning” over the impact of fossil fuels on communities, during which seven demonstrators were arrested for failure to disperse. The next included a “Day of Vision” planned by local youth, which involved drawing sustainability-related pictures outside the headquarters with chalk.

The final day on March 29, entitled a “Day of Reckoning,” involved a symbolic modeling of service through a foot washing ritual. After the service, the group attempted to enter PECO’s lobby, but security guards locked the doors. Teams of EQATers occupied multiple doors to the lobby, resulting in 18 arrests and citations, including Smithey and Lakey.

“We were engaged in the tradition of necessary civil disobedience, and the police response was professional and respectful,” Smithey said.

Lakey expressed mixed feelings about police giving citations instead of a night in jail.

“Relief, because I don’t like jail — that horrible clang of metal-on-metal when the cell door is shut. And disappointment, because it’s a lighter sanction, and reduces the degree to which we’re showing the depth of our conviction,” Lakey said.

Lakey added that an action campaign is all about “putting skin in the game,” which is why he joined 200 others in walking 100 miles around PECOs service area in March—to show the company that the cause was not going away.

Our demand is really common sense — anyone can see that, except those more enthusiastic about profit than about people and the planet. We’re on the side of history,” Lakey said. “My wish is to accelerate the process and step up the militancy of our action to incentivize an opponent who is so very, very stuck.”

EQAT Communications Director Greg Holt called on PECO to revamp how it does business. In particular, the company must take responsibility for the jobs it could create with the profits it takes from local communities, the sickness and climate change caused by its electricity distribution, and to employ its influence to empower neighborhoods to build their own sources of power.

“What’s powerful to me is that after two years of asking PECO to turn to local solar, what we’re doing now is refusing to acquiesce when the company says it won’t,” Holt said. “When PECO requires the backup of police to open its doors, it starkly reveals that the utility’s commitment is to its profit, not its people.”

Smithey stressed that the campaign is centered on climate change and the needs of local communities — not just arrested professors — and hopes people will continue to join the movement in urging PECO to become a model corporate leader.


Community members discuss advocacy and carbon pricing at Safe Climate PA conference

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On Saturday, Oct. 7, Swarthmore students and administrators attended a Safe Climate PA conference in Harrisburg. The conference serves as “an opportunity to learn about carbon pricing policies and how to effectively engage with elected officials, the media, and our campus communities to advocate for climate solutions,” according to its website.

Director of Sustainability Aurora Winslade, sustainability program manager Melissa Tier, Nathan Graf ’16, a climate action senior fellow in the office of sustainability, and Aaron Metheney ’18 helped organize the conference.

Twelve Swarthmore students attended, as well as students and representatives from many universities in Pennsylvania, including Temple, Dickinson, Franklin & Marshall, and Villanova.

The conference began with an opening address delivered by Winslade, who discussed the potential of carbon pricing and the importance of student voices on climate issues. It also included  workshops on meeting with elected officials, media engagement, campus engagement and endorsements, local government endorsements, carbon pricing policy, and storytelling around issues of climate change.

Graf facilitated the carbon pricing policy workshop and presented on climate change and carbon pricing, while Metheney facilitated the local government endorsements workshop.

Carbon pricing, which can take various forms, is a tax on carbon pollution to encourage polluters to reduce their emissions. Graf described it as the most feasible way to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius from its current temperature, at which, according to many climate scientists, the negative effects of climate change would become irreversible.

Ideally, according to Graf, a carbon tax would make it unprofitable to burn more than the 565 gigatons of carbon necessary to stay under that limit, raising the price of fossil fuels to more than the price of renewable energy sources. Because the fee would be assessed when carbon enters the economy, however, the cost would be passed on to consumers and could have a disproportionate effect on low-income people. A possible solution could be using the revenue from the price to create a universal basic income, which would offset the costs, although there are many other possible uses of the revenue.

“It is an unfortunate reality that while a price on carbon makes for very good policy, it won’t happen when few people know or care about it,” said Graf. “The need to change that is a central driver for Safe Climate PA.”

The college already has an internal carbon pricing program, which involves a 1.25 percent charge on each department’s budget. The money goes to the college’s Carbon Change Fund, which invests in profitable, energy-efficient businesses and organizations and funds other work relating to climate change and education. Nick DiMaio ’19, a president’s sustainability research fellow, will work this year to educate the community about carbon pricing, and community members have also worked to support carbon pricing beyond the college.

Metheney got President Smith’s signature on a carbon pricing petition this spring, and President Smith wrote an open letter in the “Philadelphia Inquirer” on Aug. 8 in support of carbon pricing. Smith has also reached out to other campus presidents to encourage them to sign. Metheney is also working to get the Borough of Swarthmore to institute carbon pricing.

Two interns in the office of sustainability, Lamia-Emilie Makkar ’21 and Nusaybah Estes ’21, also helped organize the event. Makkar researched the political background of the districts from which conference attendees came and the environmental stances of their elected officials — hoping to gain insight on priorities for each district — and created resource sheets for the conference workshops. Estes organized communications prior to the conference, introduced workshops, filmed the event, and helped with logistics. Makkar will continue developing educational resources and working on implementation of action plans developed at the conference, while Estes will continue networking.

“It was great to see so many [people] share energy and excitement about paving a future for the larger use of carbon charges and look forward to the actions the different groups will be taking,” Makkar said in an email.

Estes was similarly excited about implementing students’ action plans and emphasized the diverse set of perspectives speakers brought to the conference.

“I think the speakers were incredibly knowledgeable in their fields and brought interesting views on climate change to the table,” Estes said in an email.

She pointed to the speeches of Jerry Taylor, Jacqui Patterson, and Peterson Tuscano. Taylor, a conservative commentator who was originally skeptical about the effects of climate change, discussed how he changed his views and how to make a case for carbon pricing that appeals to conservatives.

Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program, talked about the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color and poor communities, both through the proximity of toxic facilities and susceptibility to natural disasters, and advocated an aggressive approach to carbon pricing to make it more equitable.

Tuscano, a comic storyteller, who has worked on LGBTQ issues, social justice, and faith, discussed in a humorous speech how he became aware of climate change, how we can engage non-environmentalists like himself in climate action by appealing to their interests and identities, and how climate change is homophobic. The video footage Estes took of their speeches and other parts of the event can be found on Safe Climate PA’s Facebook page.

Jeremy Seitz-Brown ’18 represented Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub at the conference. He shared information about Sunrise’s mission to mobilize people and pressure elected officials about climate action.

“I was really excited by the chance to learn more about what other Swarthmore students and other students across the state were doing,” he said.

Seitz-Brown took away two major things around climate change and advocacy work.

“We need more cooperation in Swarthmore, and more cooperation beyond Swarthmore,” he said.

This involves more engagement with other schools and more student education about the college’s carbon pricing initiatives. He also wants to encourage Sunrise to work with other groups on campus.

“I think we’re all doing very necessary work, whether it’s on campus policy or student organizing,” Seitz-Brown said. “I’ll be working to [help] Sunrise support the sustainability fellows and other students.”

Graf echoed the need to work with people both inside and outside of the Swarthmore community.

“To get strong climate policy in the US, it’s vital to engage grassroots and mid-level people and organizations, which is very much the goal of Safe Climate PA, and much of the other carbon pricing work we’re doing on campus,” they said.

Graf intends to reconvene the Swarthmore delegation to Safe Climate PA the week after fall break to build on the work of the conference.

”Some great ideas were brought up in the session about ways that Swarthmore students could continue this work,” they said.

The office of sustainability interns, the conference attendees, and others will work to implement those ideas and educate the community over the coming year.

Mountain Justice Joins National Group Sunrise, Broadens Goals

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After a busy past year, Mountain Justice is rebranding. They’ve joined Sunrise, a national “movement to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process,” according to their website.

“Last year I remember hearing about Mountain Justice just about every week,” said Matt Palmer ’18, who has not been part of environmental groups at Swarthmore. From a campus-wide panel about divestment to a sit-in in President Smith’s office, the climate justice organization was incredibly visible last year. This year, they’re trying something different, but they hope their impact on campus will be even greater.

Sunrise was launched this past June by a group of 12 people, including four Swarthmore Mountain Justice alumni. The founders come from different sects of the climate justice movement, including the environmental organization 350.org and anti-pipeline groups as well as pro-divestment activists. With these varied backgrounds, Sunrise aims to mobilize Americans concerned about climate change and pressure elected officials into action. Swarthmore’s “hub,” or chapter, will remain focused on Mountain Justice’s original mission of getting organizations to divest from fossil fuels while pursuing these broader goals.

“Divestment has done an incredible job in building people power … It’s mobilized thousands of young people across hundreds of campuses, and that’s so exciting,” said Aru-Shiney Ajay ’20, a coordinator for Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub. “But … it’s not enough to just have people mobilized and ready to protest. We also need to make sure that our elected representatives are going to be standing up for climate action; we need to be able to take power at the highest levels of government … And it’s out of this recognition that Sunrise really arose, that while we’ve been doing good work we need to do so much more in order to win.”

Nationally, Sunrise has already made a splash, particularly at one of their #ShineALight events in August. September Porras ’18 crowdfunded her way into a fundraiser to confront Marco Rubio on his donations from the fossil fuel industry. At the event, Porras couldn’t speak to Rubio directly, so she called out in the room.

“Senator, if you really care about young Americans,” she said, “why did you take three-quarters of a million dollars from fossil fuel executives in your last Senate election?” PolitiFact Florida rated Porras’ claim half-true because the number she cited included funds from Rubio’s 2016 presidential run as well.

According to PolitiFact Florida, Rubio avoided the question. He said he was glad he lived “in America where she can say that,” as opposed to some other countries where she could “go to jail. He then called for the U.S. to achieve energy independence.

“It was our kickoff event for Sunrise across the nation,” Porras said. The event was videotaped and is available online.

Although Sunrise’s other actions probably won’t be as dramatic as Porras’ confrontation of Rubio, Porras said her actions were in keeping with the group’s goal of putting pressure on elected officials.

“The point is less to make our elected officials suddenly change their minds about climate change … [and] more to show people how corrupt they are,” said Porras.

To work toward this goal and mobilize young people, Sunrise has planned a full calendar of events both nationwide and here at Swarthmore. This Tuesday they had a watch party in Roberts with a livestream from national Sunrise leaders. Over the course of the semester, they plan on talking to community members about what they love and have to lose from climate change, gathering objects that represent individuals’ concerns. They aim to put these objects in a time capsule and take them to Harrisburg, Pa., when they march on the state capitol in November. That month, they’ll also be marching in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with other Sunrise hubs, protesting President Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s representation of the U.S. at the Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany.

Although they’ll be protesting global events, Swarthmore’s Sunrise hub will still be focused locally.

“Sunrise functions on an intersectionality basis … and they recognize that fighting for climate [justice] in different communities looks different,” Porras said. “I think here, we’re really focusing on fracking in Pennsylvania … and for Swat that would also translate to still working with on divestment, because for us that’s what looks like climate work in our community.”

There are many other environmental groups working on campus, and sustainability and environmental awareness are stated goals of the administration.

Institutionally, Swarthmore College recognizes the importance of addressing climate change,  using natural resources in a sustainable manner, and educating its community to be responsible stewards of the environment,” says Swarthmore’s Sustainability website.

In an email, Sustainability Director Aurora Winslade affirmed the administration’s support of students working to fight climate change, and that the Office of Sustainability has opened a dialogue with Sunrise.

“I am not familiar with the specifics of the Sunrise Movement,” she said, “but I applaud the leadership and engagement of our students and alums in these issues … The Office of Sustainability is happy to work with all students and student groups who are interested in sustainability. For example, sustainability program manager Melissa Tier ’14 recently invited representatives from the Sunrise Movement to present to the College’s Green Advisors.”

Like Winslade, Matthew Palmer ’18 is unfamiliar with Sunrise, but he thinks it shows promise.

“I can’t say I’m familiar with Sunrise,” Palmer said, “but it seems like a really good set of goals and a way to broaden their exposure and provide students with new perspectives. I like that they’re targeting other issues rather than specifically divestment. I think that policy measures and things of that nature might be more effective than trying to lobby the administration for how they invest their endowment.”

Despite their broader focus, Sunrise will continue Mountain Justice’s effort to pressure the administration to divest. They will remain focused on holding the administration accountable along with the rest of the Swarthmore community, arguing for change not only in rhetoric but in action.

“Right now it’s almost seen as enough if someone says, ‘Oh, I support the Paris agreements,’ and they’re hailed as a climate champion,” said Ajay-Shiney. “And we’re saying that’s actually not enough. It’s not enough for the administration to be having a recycling run on campus, it’s not enough for this small carbon tax. We need to address things at an institutional level.”

Cherish our campus and climate

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I have stopped appreciating how beautiful our campus is. Walking through the Amphitheater to admire the trees each day, only to rush onto Kohlberg or Trotter; leaving Sharples to admire the vibrantly quilted sky after dinner; and sitting under trees off of Magill Walk to shade myself on sunny days have given me an immense sense of gratitude to the college and the Scott Arboretum, but I will not deny my complacency.

This contentment, however, is toxic. Yes, these sights should be enjoyed, and they should build a setting for our other experiences, academic or otherwise. However, they are not constant and they are not guaranteed. Although they may seem like they are in our small slices of time at Swarthmore, our understanding should not end at what we see. We must work past our experience. We must work to preserve this place and all places for the people who follow us on Earth. We, as students and stewards, must each take on the responsibility of making Swarthmore a green institution.  

Coming from DC, I rarely had opportunities to immerse myself in nature.  Maybe a drive down Rock Creek or George Washington Parkway late at night, where trees, only briefly struck by my headlights, flew by in my periphery. Otherwise, I lived between home, the cracking asphalt, and the climbing cranes of the District.

My isolation from nature should make me see the space we live in for what it is. And I did—at least, during my first month and a half at the college. I made it a part of my schedule to enjoy being in nature, but even that did not stop me from devaluing it over time. It became commonplace. It became my commonplace.

I think what made me notice my forgetfulness was Monday’s NextGen Climate PA rally.  I heard about the assembly by unknowingly joining the organizing group at Essie’s, and with my quesadilla in hand, I signed my name to the cause. Going to the rally, as well as acquainting myself with the climate movement at large before and after moving in, has made the situation clearer in my mind.

Often times, climate change is discussed only in sweeping terms. An ice sheet falls from Antarctica, crashing and plunging into the ocean. Fires burn along the West Coast, and droughts inflame the issue. West Asia will soon become uninhabitable due to its spiking heat and evaporating water sources.  

This course of reporting is one of the few ways that climate change can be announced or noted, because climate change is of such unthinkable scale. However, where I find that the issue lies is in the contrast between these overwhelming results and the seemingly everyday sources of these global troubles.

From the car I drove on those parkways to the laptop I am charging now, we contribute to those seismic events that happen everyday—maybe not in our own backyards, but to the homeless, the poor, and the global south.

The issue is that most students in Swarthmore’s student body grow up in this system.  Lights stay on through the night, showers run as long as one would like, and printers at McCabe or Cornell consistently stream out students’ every reading. It’s ubiquitous. It’s our commonplace.

Because of this realization, however, we have the opportunity to make change in ourselves and in our community. There must be a marriage of solidarity and subsidiarity.  Demanding incremental change from institutions but monumental change from ourselves.  

That is why I propose we fight for the causes Mountain Justice professes, including divestment, outfitting dorms with water-conserving toilets and sinks like those in Danawell, and aiming to make the campus carbon-neutral. On top of these goals, we can make meaningful efforts to change how we live to reduce our impact as individuals. We might set water limits on showers, thrift for clothes instead of only buying new, and go zero-waste—an innovative idea where disposable products are rejected or refused.

Our campus is one we should not just appreciate, but also cherish. However, there are innumerable places like Swarthmore that mean just as much or more to others. By changing our college and our actions, we might be able to preserve those places for someone else.

In policy, much back-patting with no impact

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On August 31, President Obama began a historic trip to the Alaskan Arctic in order to highlight the effects of climate change on the region. Obama’s call to curb the CO2 emissions that are already melting glaciers in the Arctic and leading to drastically rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands was marred by his recent initiative permitting expanded offshore drilling in the Alaskan Arctic. Many saw this move as hypocritical given the negative environmental impacts of offshore drilling, in particular in at-risk regions such as the Arctic. Obama’s seemingly discordant stance on climate change and the economy is not unique. Debates on climate policy are increasingly focused less on the science of the issue than on the economic effects of regulatory policies. While the vast majority of the globe agrees that something needs to be done to combat climate change, no one can agree on how to curb emissions, or who to target specifically. This is because regulations require sacrifice, and sacrifice, especially monetary, is difficult.

This conflict played out on a much more local level last semester at Swarthmore, with the Board of Managers clashing with Swarthmore Mountain Justice over whether or not the school should divest from fossil fuels. The Board did not make its decision against divestment for any environmental reasons. In fact, the board declared its commitment to environmental initiatives on campus in an email to the student body. Instead, the decision not to divest was made out of a fear of losing money. Though investment analysts on both sides of the argument disagree on the figures, the Board claimed that divesting would reduce gains on the school’s endowment by upwards of $10 million a year, which would in turn negatively impact services provided to Swarthmore itself. The Board found it more prudent to instead spend its money on green standards for the new biology building. Even though I’m a Mountain Justice member and strong supporter of divestment, I’m going to temporarily ignore the merits and faults of the Board’s decision, to instead focus on its perceived environmental and economic justifications. The decision to not divest follows a trend set over the past twenty years within the environmental movement of forgoing significant policies in the name of economics. To instead focus on individualized green policies leads to lots of back patting but minimal impact. I laud the school’s decision to use green technology in new construction projects, and its support of the Green Advisors program just as I support families who recycle and put solar panels on their homes. But these decisions fundamentally miss the mark when it comes to effective climate policy. With carbon emissions from individuals totaling less than 40% of total emissions, such measures are important, yet ultimately not effective enough when it comes to having any kind of significant effect on the urgent crisis that is the Earth’s climate. They are a vital component and a complement to effective policies. But a false dichotomy exists between individual and institutional environmentalism.

Bringing a particular urgency to modern environmentalism is the upcoming UNFCCC Conference of the Parties taking place in Paris this December. The UN-hosted international conference is meant to address issues of the environment and climate change. COP is considered by many to be a last chance to create powerful, binding, and long lasting international laws regarding pollution, fossil fuel extraction, and climate change as a whole. At the conference, representatives of regions most affected by climate change, such as South America and Oceania, will face off against United States representatives unwilling to sacrifice corporate profits and “sovereignty” — representatives of the same President Obama that is currently in Alaska calling for drastic action on climate change. From UN representatives to the Board of Managers to the President of the United States, combating climate change is treated as an economic issue, one that is best ignored and left for small-scale projects. It is true that the economic impacts of climate policies do exist, and cannot be ignored. But the impacts of climate change, both on economics and on human life as a whole, cannot be ignored either. It is time for a reevaluation of what risks should be taken, and what sacrifices should be made, for the sake of the planet. As the saying goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” But, from Swarthmore to the UN, this lunch is one that ought to be paid for. Institutional changes must be made across the board and cop-out environmentalism is not enough. Sacrifices are by nature difficult, and marginalized groups that might be affected by regulation must be taken into account. There must be an end to the treatment of environmental concerns as ultimately secondary to economic sacrifice, for everyone’s sake.


Students to attend UN convention on climate change

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From December 1 to December 12, representatives from more than 190 nations will convene in Lima, Peru for the 20th annual Conference of the Parties. The meeting will also include leaders from the finance and business sectors, including members of the Rockefeller Family Fund, as well as student delegates from colleges and universities around the country.

The U.S., the E.U. and, notably, China have all made formal commitments to further reducing their carbon emissions in the coming years before the talks in Lima. China is the first Asian nation to make such a commitment, and one of the only developing nations to do so.

A major concern at the talks is the adjudication of fossil fuel restrictions between economically advanced nations and developing nations. Industrialized nations have benefited from the use of fossil fuels for decades, and are held largely responsible for the climate crisis. Developing nations are being encouraged to cut emissions comparatively early in their growth, likely to their economic disadvantage. Many assert that the effects of climate change will disproportionately impact developing nations.

Ben Goloff ’15, Christopher Chalaka ’15, Zoe Cina-Sklar ’15 and Laura Rigell ’16 have received funding from the school to attend these talks, and will depart on Saturday. This will be the second year that a delegation from Swarthmore has attended a United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting. The students will be accompanied by Director of Sustainability Laura Cacho, Assistant Professor of Political Science Ayse Kaya, Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change Giovanna Di Chiro and Professor of English Literature Betsy Bolton. Last year, Rigell and Alex Ahn ’15 were accompanied by Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff.

Goloff, Kaya and Di Chiro have approval to observe open negotiations. Student delegations will also participate in a People’s Climate Summit that is external but parallel to the talks.

Rigell noted that along with building connections with other youth climate activists, “We are also hoping to draw connections between #blacklivesmatter and Ferguson with the inequitable valuations of lives and experiences in the COP process.”

The students hope to escalate pressure on the UN to create progressive binding targets for emissions reductions, which will be established at COP21 in Paris next year.

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