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Students to march on Washington for climate justice

in Around Campus/News by

On April 29th, Swarthmore students will be marching around the White House, along with thousands of other protesters, for the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. Although the march is a national event, Mountain Justice, Green Advisors, and the Sustainability Office are working together to send three buses of students to the march and a student convergence the day before.

Indiana Reid-Shaw ’17 was part of a group of students who worked to send students and staff from Swarthmore to the first People’s Climate March in New York City in Sept. 2014. By coordinating with the larger 350 movement, an environmental organization, and getting funding from various departments at the college, the group was able to send 200 students and staff to the march.

“The first PCM was a huge success, and therefore we are using the same tactics to garner interest,” Reid-Shaw said.  

These tactics include advertising on dorm halls, sharing slides with professors, and running an interest meeting along with Mountain Justice. September Sky Porras ’20, a member of Mountain Justice, headed this interest meeting and is leading the effort to bring people to the march this year. Porras believes that, despite negative rhetoric about protests, the march is an important occurrence.

“I think that the People’s Climate March is super important right now. I also know there’s a lot of discourse about whether protests are effective or not. For me personally, I think that protests even though they’re made up mostly of people who are already engaged. First off it lets people feel like they’re doing something and being part of something, and second, leads them to engage with other organizations, … so it’s definitely teaching people how to be leaders in their communities and how to elect people who are good for climate justice. And then of course third, everybody who’s in D.C. at the time is going to see this. So if you don’t think this is a big deal, it’s gonna seem like a very big deal,” Porras said.

The college’s Sustainability Office, while supporting the college’s decision not to divest at odds with Mountain Justice’s recent referendum, is working with Mountain Justice and the GAs in this effort.

“We take seriously our role of serving as a liaison between students and the administration and supporting all student sustainability groups on campus. Thus, we look for opportunities to engage constructively with Mountain Justice, including our collaboration on the upcoming People’s Climate March,” Nathaniel Graf, of the office, said.

Reid-Shaw is also excited about the collaborative effort.

“I am excited about this partnership with Mountain Justice because I get the sense that some people think of these two groups as approaching environmentalism in opposing ways. I think both of our groups’ foci are essential and should work in tandem,” she said.  

Along with the march itself, many students will be attending a “student convergence” on Friday, the day before the main event. At this convergence, various organizations such as 350 will be hosting workshops on both climate justice and social justice more generally.

“It’s going to be a bunch of students, we’re going to be taking those workshops, we’re going to be interacting with other students and other student organizations, I know we’re going to be meeting up with a lot of people who have other divestment movements, so that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Porras said.  

Although the 80 people who have signed up for the march this year are fewer in number than before, there is excitement about the opportunity to learn at the convergence.

“I was actually really excited to see so many people who aren’t super involved in MJ or the GAs already being excited to go to the student convergence, and I was like woah, that’s really cool, because I don’t know if I wasn’t involved if I would want to put myself out there. So I’m really like wow, that’s really great,” Porras said.  

According to Porras, in past years, some of the panelists at the People’s Climate March and convergence have been less than optimal. With the help of Stephen O’Hanlon (year), she looks forward to a more improved experience.

“Apparently … there were a lot of questionable panelists, who were, I don’t know, just very white-centrist ideas … yeah, (this year), it’s not going to be that,” she said.

Reid-Shaw remembers the “contagious energy” at the last march in 2014.

“The energy was contagious at the last PCM in 2014. It was empowering to walk with so many people all with a common interest for climate justice, but for so many different reasons. I talked to a beekeeper, an environmental justice advocate, and an indigenous activist. I remember feeling the power of the people as we marched by Times Square and all of the corporate buildings,” she said.  

However, both Reid-Shaw and Porras believe that the new Trump administration makes this 2017 march, which will be held on Trump’s 100th day in office, particularly important.

“I …  think it’s pretty poignant that it’s on [Trump’s] 100th day in office, and we’re going to be marching around the white house very loudly, so yeah I think protests and specifically this protest being so large, and in DC, and on that specific date, it’s just a very very good way to connect channels of people,” Porras said.

Reid-Shaw agreed.

“On April 29th we will march again, but this time in DC and to the White House to demand climate justice for people of color, workers, indigenous people, immigrants, women, LGBTQIA, young people, and more! As the Trump administration and their fossil fuel allies threaten communities and our future, we need to show up in force in DC to demand a renewable economy that works for all,” she said, “Our goals are high.”

The buses to D.C. have the capacity to hold about 150 people, and look to bring a large presence of students to the event.

 

Let’s Give a Damn: Trump Game

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We’ve all probably freaked out a little about climate change and President Donald Trump’s outright denial of it. It seems like President Trump has hand-picked a team that will happily sign off the future of our planet to build walls. Or something. And everyone’s playing the Trump Game like, “oh, can he do this?” Can he rip up the Paris Agreement? Can he actually increase coal mining? It’s almost as if I can hear a collective wailing and lamenting about Trump’s EPA picks, and what seems like his personal vendetta against environmental agencies and regulating companies that can be heard all night and day.

So I decided to talk to a couple of different people who have been doing environmental work to see how Trump’s administration might impact their work.

Laura Rigell is a recent Swarthmore alumna who does environmental justice work in Philadelphia, primarily with Serenity Soular. Khai Dao and Roberta Riccio both work in the Environmental Protection Agency. Dao is an engineer working with the RCRA Corrective Action Program, which works in collaboration with facilities with hazardous waste to perform cleanups. Riccio has worked with the EPA for 27 years, most recently with the Water Protection Division to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act. She works with states and oversees public drinking water systems, ensuring they’re doing the right testing and treatment. Mike Ewall is the founder and director of Energy Justice Network. Full disclosure, I did not actually get a chance to interview Mike Ewall. However, I did meet him last year at a conference, and he wrote something that is relevant and will be quoted.

 

It was clear that this article had the potential to become very bleak, and so I wanted to start by stating that after my conversation with Rigell, Dao, and Riccio, I am reassured (and you should be too) by all of the great work and people who will continue doing what they believe in no matter what. They’re out there, and they’re fighting! Basically, the apocalypse won’t happen, like, tomorrow.

Rigell, who is driven not only by the reality of climate change, but also by the desire to bring about more racial and economic justice, works with Serenity Soular and seems sure that the local project she is working on is not fazed by the uncertain future.

Serenity Soular is a project based in a place called Serenity House, a community center in North Philadelphia. It started out as a gardening project but has since become a project about creating jobs in the community. Since 2014, Serenity Soular has been focusing on training and helping members of the community find employment at a solar installation company. The training is done by Solar State and in fact, a lot of Swatties have been involved with the project, and you can learn about it through the Lang Center or on Swarthmore websites.

“I want to help us shift to a more just society, one with the focus on climate justice,” Rigell said.

The one concrete thing that Trump’s administration can do that concerns Rigell is the changing of the solar investment tax credit. The tax credit is a 30 percent tax credit for solar systems for residential and commercial use. It is one of the most important federal policy mechanisms to support the deployment of solar energy in the United States and was just recently renewed to continue until 2021.

“If congress retracted it, the solar industry might really crash. It could have a very negative impact unless the cost of solar comes down a lot,” Rigell said.

When I called Dao and Riccio, I had this in mind and hoped to hear more about the policy changes that concerned them. However, at the start of the interview they professionally and politely told me that there were some restrictions that couldn’t allow them to disclose certain information.

“I guess we have to come out with the process for this interview because the current administration…” trailed off Dao.

“We have certain restrictions about what we can talk about. And there’s a lot that we don’t know about too,” interjected Riccio.

Both of them continuously reassured me that although they were initially shocked, they realize that with any change in administration there are protocols for federal agencies.

“I think it was a shock to everybody in general in how Trump took over the government and how it trickles down to EPA too. One of the first things was the limitations to what we could discuss with the media and also postponing decisions on regulations, so that the administration and their people can review what we’re planning to do in terms of our approach and our regulations, the works,” said Dao, “But, that’s common.”

“In retrospect that’s common when administrations change,” chimed Riccio, “That’s to be expected in the beginning. If something is in the works, they would want the opportunity to review it all.”

However, they were definitely shocked about the change in some of the initiatives and missions that they both hold onto dearly.

 

“I think the biggest shock right off the bat was when it was announced to the media and then confirmed with the EPA that they took out some initiatives that we thought were pretty commonly accepted within EPA, such as climate change,” said Dao.

From what Dao and Riccio were able to share, it seems that everyone is continuing their jobs as usual with their current budgets, but new proposals or initiatives are on pause or slowed down. Within the EPA, there are no more additional hirings or decisions about new managers. However, Riccio believes that managerial positions will be implemented after there is a new regional administrator. As I spoke with them, it was clear that there was a lot of uncertainty, and almost a defeated laughter accompanying it all.

“Honestly, we don’t know what exactly is going to happen yet. I want to say we’re nervous,” Roberta said.

“Right now,” Dao added, “We’re just following the typical protocols with a change of administration.”

Both Dao and Riccio expressed concerns about how certain protocols can definitely set the agency back, undermining a lot of good work that they and their agency have been doing for a while. How exactly that might look however, no one is sure.

“In general, from what we’ve heard from the Trump administration is outside homeland security and the military, the entire federal government is alert,” said Dao. “For us being scientists and engineers, we really hope the administration continues to use data and science to make the decisions — not just politics.”

Dao and Riccio were both hopeful, however, that smaller local organizations or states can rise up and take more of a lead. Dao laughed and called out California, expressing hope that they will take the lead in regulating what is right for their state. Riccio pointed out that local organizations that are not funded by federal agencies, such as Serenity Soular, can and are definitely going to make a big impact.

Rigell from Serenity Soular and Riccio also both commented on the mass public support and protests that have become more and more commonplace. Both are amazed and inspired by the great activism that is occurring on the local level.

“On some levels, I think this is pushing people back to the question: ‘what do I believe in?,’” Riccio said.

“The left gets more organized under Republican presidents, even when facing the same things that they often ignore under Democratic Party presidents,” Ewall reflected. Ewall’s article is definitely much more hopeful than the interview I had with Dao and Riccio. In fact, he points out that Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have both promoted fracking, which “is worse for the climate than coal.”

Ewall writes that resource depletion has more of a say with what energy resource is being used than a president, and thus Trump’s incessant threat about promoting coal is impossible.

“Coal production, in terms of energy value, peaked in 2002 in the U.S. The affordable half of the coal is already used up, and the rest will mostly stay underground, economically unreachable,” he writes. “It’s geology, not a Democratic president, that has a war on coal.”

The EJN have also continued to fight against incinerators in rural Pennsylvania, with two victories in December and January. The EJN is definitely one of the local organizations that can make a huge impact when it comes to bringing environmental justice to local communities.

 

“We’re hopeful,” ends Khai. “I think common sense and doing the right thing will eventually prevail. I think people in the agency and in the government are going to move forward, and do the right thing, and do their best.”

 

And no one, not even the President, can stop the people fighting for what is right.

Before It’s Too Late

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It’s time sustainability stopped being “just green,” because it’s not going to be enough.

The idea of this column, “Let’s Give a Damn,” actually came from one of the Environmental Services tech whom my partner — Adina Spertus-Melhus ’17 — and I talked to last semester for our Presidential Sustainability Research Fellowship (PSRF — pronounced pee-surf) project. Rebecca from the night-shift in the Chemistry wing – hey Rebecca! — said: “I love reading The Phoenix,” and, “I know how to recycle better than most Swatties,” and, “I’d love to see a column on sustainability.”

So here we are.

This column is not going to be a place where I spew out tips (or commands) like “Top Ten Things to Make Your Experience in Sharples Sustainable” because I realize I have no place to do that. Nor am I the most exemplary person when it comes down to doing all that I can. Rather, the aim of this column is to try and push forward the conversations on topics of sustainability, which I’m sure are happening all around, and into the public domain here at Swarthmore. My goal is to encourage conversations that are accessible to everyone, and to be opinionated in the hopes that my thoughts make sustainable living more interesting. I will also be writing in conjunction with Ecosphere, Swarthmore’s first and only zine that will highlight all the great projects and environmental groups on campus now. I hope to also get feedback and suggestions on what I should talk about, and thus create an interactive community. Please feel free to comment and or shoot me a personal email.

Sustainability has become one of those topics that has become a “thing” on the individual level. Almost as if it’s either your ‘thing’ or it’s not. I know this because, as I was going through my awkward tween years, some people would say, “Oh she, like, uh, cares about the environment,” and meant it as a comment rather than a statement. Sometimes that comment was made as a joke, and people would giggle. To many, if sustainability is your “thing,” you’re either a new-age-bare-foot-tree-hugging-spiritual-voice-of-the-trees-paganist-wanna-be-vegan with a billion impossible habits that involve something like saving your toenail clippings for later, or you’re a techno-centric-fact-spewing-apocalyptic-prophet-environmental-engineer who lives in a completely self-powered room with a bunch of extremely particular stuff that no one else around you understands. In other words: self-righteous, preachy, and annoying. If you’re not one of these two, then you’re just an annoying, fake environmentalist.

In all cases, you’re varying degrees of annoying. You care about something that is not as important as every other social justice issue.

Great.

It isn’t a surprise to me that many people are hesitant when they see large Greenpeace and PETA signs, or when they’re tentative to start doing research and to ask questions on becoming more environmentally conscious. It is a greatly considered topic for a niche group of slightly rebellious people that I often get asked why I not an environmental studies major. “If you care about this, then you should just join the tribe, and shut up about it.” Put it this way: imagine if someone came up to me and asked “If you cared so much about being Asian and your Asian identity, why don’t you major in Asian Studies?” Well, I would look at the person in astonishment and probably wonder how sad it is that caring about something, is just not valued or normal in our current society. As if nowadays if you cared about something it has to be because you were also doing “real work” for it.

Isn’t it sad that I can feel eye-rolls as I say the word “care?”

I understand that it is difficult to empathize with environmental issues because they are so embedded within every aspect of our lives — from everything we use, to what we eat, to where we go to the toilet. Every system has the question of the environment in it. It’s so vast and confusing people are unsure who the environmentalists are even representing and caring about. It sounds pompous to say “the entire planet” and it sounds strange — and is untrue — to say “the trees.” People stay away from it entirely, or they joke about it because it’s easy to joke around with environmental issues — haha, recycling, psh — because, well, no one seems to be getting hurt.

Well, now people clearly and incontrovertibly are getting hurt.

The Syrian Civil War is considered one of the largest wars sparked by a climate change-induced drought. The poor and disenfranchised suffer the most as a result extreme weather disasters. I want to step away from facts and statistics for a moment. My home, Beijing, is infamous for its pollution. That means a lot of different things, but one thing that will never fail to sadden me is that now it is harder to laugh because it takes deep breaths to laugh.

It is time to restructure the norm of being a “sustainability person.” This is an issue that cannot just be “green,” about the “environment,” or for the “green people.” It is a nuanced issue that no one has the right answer to. No one knows the answer, or what is exactly correct. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything — in fact, it should mean there’s greater opportunity for everyone to be thinking and acting. It is difficult for a lot of people to grapple with, including myself, is the degree of failure that is unavoidable as we live in our current economic system. The existence of this economic system sets “being sustainable” on an asymptotic scale rather than one of yes or no.

Here is a picture of a horizontal asymptote.Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 1.10.10 AM

I know very little about horizontal asymptotes other than that the line will never reach a limit, in this case, zero, but will only continuously reach for zero.

Let’s take a moment and pretend that the gap between the line and zero represents the negative environmental impact you have. Let’s acknowledge the gap, and feel a twinge of sadness that we seem to always hurt our Mother Earth. It should not mean we should sit and just sigh and await some, we don’t even know what kind of, disaster. Because now, more than ever, every step in the right direction is necessary and real, even if it’s not perfect. It starts with caring, and does not mean we can’t do anything. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do anything. And caring about the environment, believing that climate change is very much real and that the environment needs to be taken care of starts with just that, giving a damn. Anywhere from “I live an entirely zero-waste existence” to “I watch Planet Earth to appreciate nature” is a question of degree, not validity.

If you think the environment needs protecting, if you think that it is wrong that we profit off the exploitation of the environment especially in third-world countries, and if you think that something needs to be done, then you care. That cure can take any shape and form you want to start with.

As we twiddle our thumbs and watch the new climate-change-denying cabinet take power, let’s all just start with the baby step of saying loudly and fearlessly to a friend, to all your friends on Facebook, to yourself at night, and anyone:

“I care about the environment.”

Because, honestly, it is already a little late.  

Carbon charge to support sustainable projects

in Around Campus/News by

Earlier this month, the Board of Managers put in place a new carbon charge for the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget. This carbon charge will levy funds from academic and non academic departments to support sustainable projects. The goal is to reduce emissions and to promote sustainable solutions as part of the college’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2035.

A focus group made up of faculty and the sustainability coordinator started planning for the carbon charge in the fall of 2015. After community consultation, the carbon charge was proposed to the Board of Managers Committee on Social Responsibility in December 2015. At their meeting this February, the board voted in favor of the carbon charge and allotted $300,000 of the college’s budget towards it.

The new carbon charge is part of the college’s Sustainability Framework, which outlines building sustainability standards, and a commitment to carbon neutrality by the year 2035. According to Aurora Winslade, Director of Sustainability, this commitment is represented in part by the Environmental Studies program, Green Advisors Program, and the Eco-Charrette two day event last year. As a part of the commitment to carbon neutrality, the carbon charge has wide-reaching goals.

“Over time, the intention is to more closely tie the fee to choices that are made so that we can incentivize behavior that reduces emissions,” said Winslade. “It is also a statement that makes it clear that we take climate change seriously, remain committed to our goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2035, if not sooner, and intend to be among those creating solutions.”

The carbon charge is part of an effort to pursue more sustainable solutions and reduce overall emissions. Swarthmore currently offsets 100% of its carbon emissions from electricity by purchasing Renewable Energy Credits, which supports renewable energy development by representing that one megawatt-hour of energy was generated by a sustainable source. “Swarthmore has been purchasing Renewable Energy Credits since 1999 in a quantity to ‘offset’ our campus emissions.” said Winslade. “This is not a substitute for reducing our emissions, but does help fund projects elsewhere that help reduce emissions, in this case the offsets are provided through wind energy.”

The $300,000 of levied funds in the carbon charge will support projects that reduce the college’s carbon footprint. For example, the fund may be used for energy efficiency or renewable energy projects. The funds may also support research or metering projects that aim to raise awareness of sustainability issues and direct informed decisions. One of the main objectives of the carbon charge is to make people more aware of their carbon footprint and possibilities for  sustainability.

“A primary goal of this new policy is to induce positive behavior change by making individuals’ carbon emissions more apparent and meaningful,” said Winslade. “Over time, as both metering & campus awareness of carbon emissions improve through funded projects, new components of the Carbon Charge structure will be added to better link the levy to actual behaviors.”

One main aspect of the carbon charge design is a .5% levy on all academic and non-academic departmental budgets for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. This levy will increase in the following years. Another aspect of the project, which is yet to be implemented, is a fee for every $40/metric ton of carbon dioxide used in construction.

Although an increased levy will be placed upon all departments, the money will not come from faculty or staff salaries. According to Chair and Professor of the history department, Timothy Burke, the .5% levy will not have a significant effect on the department’s activities.

Chair and Professor of the anthropology department, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, expressed support for the charge despite the effects it will have on the sociology-anthropology department’s limited budget.

“Although we will feel the consequences of the carbon charge, we also see this as a contribution to the overall sustainability of the College that we are glad to make,” said Willie-LeBreton. “At the same time, some of our colleagues in Political Science, Philosophy and Economics urge us to appreciate that budgets and financial investments represent our organizational values. So while we are deeply appreciative that the carbon charge has brought many community members together, we continue to work for Swarthmore’s more robust participation in curbing global warming at mezzo and macro levels.”

Winslade expressed that a main part of the carbon charge design is the creation of a “green-revolving loan fund.” With this the college can effectively loan itself money for sustainable projects and create more capital.

“The Carbon Charge will help us invest in both the research and the projects that will reduce our emissions,” said Winslade. “Many of these projects have financial returns, and it is our hope to be able to use some of the funds to establish a revolving loan fund in which projects that have a payback can be financed from the fund, then repay the fund through the savings so that money can then be re-invested in the next project.”

Min Zhong ’19 believes that the carbon charge initiative is a move in the right direction for the Office of Sustainability. “It seems like it’s a big initial financial investment, but I believe that the board and Aurora has put enough thought into this initiative that it is going to work out well.”

Zhong also critiqued the clarity of the board’s message and its exact initiative. Although their general plan and goals are outlined, the board did not explicitly state  how the revenue will be allocated, or what exactly the fee does for the college in terms of achieving sustainability.

“The plan is still really vague [in terms of] what they are letting us know, so it just seems like there is going to be a lot of spending happening but the consequences of that spending aren’t clear yet,” said Zhong. “It’s difficult to get people enthusiastic about what this new carbon plan will achieve if we don’t have a clear idea of how this policy is going to play out.”

Despite the carbon charge, students have expressed the desire for the college to do more to commit to sustainable solutions and divestment. Abby Saul ’19, a member of Mountain Justice, stressed that although the charge is a step in the right direction, it is inadequate to address climate change.

“Due to the urgency of the climate crisis, it is important that we utilize all the tools at our disposal to fight for our collective futures. The carbon charge is one way to do that — but it is far from enough and is not a replacement for divestment,” said Saul. “Initiatives focused on encouraging sustainability on our campus are important, but when faced with arguably the largest crisis of our times, they are simply not enough.”

Zhong communicated similar sentiments that the board’s new plan is a step in the right direction, but leaves room for more steps in achieving sustainability.

“It seems like the board continues to be in conflict with environmental initiatives from Mountain Justice’s point of view, but it looks like they are making a conscious effort to put out a sensible first step towards achieving a goal that would benefit the whole college.”

Although the carbon charge promotes sustainability and the college’s commitment to carbon neutrality, it does not, according to Saul, tap into Swarthmore’s social capital as part of a larger movement to divest from the fossil fuel industry and take social responsibility for climate change.

“The divestment movement works to not only break financial ties with the fossil fuel industry but also to use Swarthmore College’s social capital as a highly respected institution to stigmatize [the fossil fuel] industry whose prosperity is directly linked to the destruction of millions of lives, the environment, and our hopes for a just future,” said Saul. “MJ will continue to campaign for divestment of the College’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry.”

Swarthmore can align its values with honorary degree recipients

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

This Thursday, three Swarthmore Honorary Degree recipients, labor organizer and anti-war activist John Braxton, linguist, philosopher and political activist Noam Chomsky, and Berkeley sociology professor Arlie Hochschild called on the college to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. On Tuesday, MIT Professor Emeritus of Management Lotte Bailyn added her name to the letter. These three individuals are amongst the distinguished members of society that Swarthmore College has bestowed Honorary Degrees on for their moral, social and scientific contributions to the world. They represent the values we purport to uphold as an institution, and we ought to heed their advice when they call on our college to uphold its moral responsibility as a global leader: “Climate change is without doubt one of the most important moral, economic, and political issues of our time.  We call upon you to exercise intellectual and moral leadership by implementing a plan to divest from fossil fuels over the next few years.” Our institution should join the ranks of these leaders in combatting the greatest threat of our generation by divesting from fossil fuels.

Communities around the globe are facing an unprecedented crisis at the hands of anthropogenic climate change and the rogue fossil fuel industry. Communities of color, those of lower socio-economic means and the global south are disproportionately impacted by the devastating effects of global reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas. Extreme weather, rising sea levels, and air and water pollutants devastate lives, drive global conflict, and bring us closer to the brink of ecological collapse. There is no greater threat to humanity in the 21st century. The devastating effects of inaction now will be placed upon the shoulders of our generation and impact our lives in untold ways. We know what the consequences of inaction are, yet the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry and its inertia have over our political process threatens to drive us off the cliff. Only a sustained, popular campaign that capitalizes on collective power to tackle the fossil fuel industry can counter the political inertia that surrounds us and drive industry and government alike to act.

The fossil fuel divestment movement offers an alternative: driven by collective action colleges, pension funds and governments around the world are divesting in ever increasing numbers, sending a message to politicians, corporations and financial markets that fossil fuels hold no place in a just and sustainable future. Financial institutions have responded by highlighting the investment risks of fossil fuel stocks if action is taken to curtail fossil fuel consumption, devaluing the industry. Some energy corporations have responded by taking steps to reduce their carbon impact and directly citing the social change that divestment creates as a core reason. But the industry is fighting back. Just this past week, the Supreme Court blocked the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan in a 5-4 decision while litigation pends brought by 27 states and the fossil fuel industry charging that the Environmental Protection Agency does not have authority to restrict total CO2 emissions. The need for action has never been greater. Will our institution sit idly by while the most important political battle of our generation is waged?

We have an opportunity to lead, to live up to our values as an institution and support social justice, but we are wasting it. Every initiative Swarthmore takes to combat climate change rings hollow when we continue to invest in the very industry that drives it. By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, we are actively betting against a just and sustainable future where those stocks will no longer be solvent. Future efforts devoid of divestment smack of nothing more than window dressing in light of the significant financial ties that powerful board members Rhonda Cohen, Harold Kalkstein and Samuel Hayes III have with the fossil fuel industry. They must recuse themselves to maintain the integrity of future discussions on divestment.

The majority of Swarthmore students and faculty support divestment, and now John Braxton, Noam Chomsky, Lotte Bailyn and Arlie Hochschild have added their voices to the chorus calling for change. It is time for our institution to respond to these leaders; the price of inaction is too grave to do otherwise. As John Braxton said in his 2010 commencement speech, “There is a major economic and ecological crisis looming, and the lives of literally billions of people depend on our solving these problems. The curvature of the crisis is exponential and the nature of exponential problems is that they are hard to take seriously until it is nearly too late.”

Members of the Swarthmore community, please join us to rally and hear John Braxton speak this Friday, February 19th at 1:00 p.m. on the front steps of Parrish and deliver a strong message to our board of managers. Swarthmore, please don’t let it be too late.

Works Referenced:

Braxton, John. (2010, May). 2010 Commencement. Speech presented at Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, PA. http://www.swarthmore.edu/past-commencements/john-braxton-70

If we are allies who can win, why aren’t you involved?

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Throughout the fall semester of my freshman year, I chose to refrain from engaging in any activist clubs, including Mountain Justice. I had worked on human rights issues throughout high school and wanted to focus on myself and try something new, like dancing. I enjoyed my first semester of college and had good times with new friends, but I consistently heard news and developments on the Mountain Justice campaign and felt conflicted but still I declined to get involved.

Second semester, post-spring break, MJ decided to implement a bold action in response to the repeated denial and eventual resolute rejection of their proposal by the Board of Managers. When faced with the opportunity to participate in the sit-in and fight for a cause I supported, I was confronted with the question, “Why am I not involved?” I could find no reason why I had not already immersed myself in a cause I cared about, and I hoped I could make up for lost time by being devoted to the sit-in. Come as much as possible and just sit and do work? That seemed easy enough.

My place within Mountain Justice and the movement was not cemented until I was invited to become more involved in the campaign by representing the campaign in a radio interview about the sit-in. I accepted the offer, but in preparing for the interview, my ignorance of divestment and climate justice issues dawned upon me. I crammed for the interview like it was a final in a subject where I had skipped three months of class. and I still felt as though I did not know enough to be prepared. It wasn’t the interview, however, that I was scrambling for. Unconsciously, I was scrambling to make up for lost time discovering a passion I had neglected up to the point of the sit-in. The night before the interview, I was sitting in the basement of McCabe reading articles about the climate justice movement and Swarthmore divestment. I was reading about the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the companies our endowment is potentially invested in and I began to cry. I finally realized the import of the student divestment movement and the magnitude of the Swarthmore sit-in for the larger movement. I was crying because it hurt to read about these insidious companies polluting oceans and obliterating ecosystems, poisoning groundwater and the people who drink it, murdering children and bulldozing communities that stand in the way of their efforts to maximize profits.

I felt that I had no choice but to participate because doing my best to fight for climate justice is part of taking responsibility for my privilege as a student at a wealthy, insulated liberal arts college. Quaker activist George Lakey said, “frontline communities need allies who can win.” We are all in the position to be allies who can win because we have power as students at a prestigious institution. We have a voice which is a privilege not afforded to all communities being affected by the inimical fossil fuel industry.

Swatties often fall into the trap of feeling like contentious issues are endlessly complicated, and consequently take no action. We know the fossil fuel industry is incompatible with a sustainable future, and it’s clear what the right choice is. I encourage everyone to read about divestment. Like finding any passion, it is a journey to discover why you support or do not support this cause. I was certain I had found my passion in education before the sit-in and I still hold true to that passion. I am still an education major, but I can integrate my newfound passion for climate justice into the future I want to create for myself and our world because I retained an open mind and took a harsh look at myself. The question I posed to myself, and that I challenge you to ask yourself, “Why am I not involved?”

In addition to discovering my passion for climate justice, by participating in the sit-in I learned invaluable lessons about my power as an individual to effect change, my endurance in times of need, and the power of community.

The community created at the sit-in, which consisted of my fellow students, faculty, and community members, embraced the challenge together. We had so many victories because we stayed grounded in the movement and in each other. Over the course of the sit-in we successfully organized students and alumni, we received an outpouring of support from the local and national divestment communities including venerable climate activist Bill McKibben and UN Climate Chief and Swarthmore graduate, Christiana Figueres, we inspired numerous sit-ins on other campuses across the country, raised consciousness about divestment nationwide, and succeeded in putting divestment back on the agenda for the May Board meeting. With each passing day of the sit-in, each new mini-victory, the community grew stronger. The solidarity of the movement carried over into my personal struggles and reminded me of the higher purpose we had and our obligation to stay strong for ourselves and the communities we are fighting for.

I could not have asked for a more positive result of the sit-in for myself as an individual and for the campaign as a whole. I am very excited to be entering this campaign now, as a freshman especially considering that the majority of people who participated in organizing and executing the sit-in were freshmen. The sit-in was a major victory for the campaign regardless of what the Board of Managers decides this upcoming Saturday because in thirty-two days, we developed a community and no one can take away our communal strength and power as a movement. But the battle is not over. If the Board does not vote to divest on Saturday, we will build our power, keep the pressure on, and continue the fight to ensure that Swarthmore registers itself on the right side of history. Divestment is too important an issue to abandon and the repercussions of staying invested in fossil fuels are too dire to stop fighting. For our allies on the front-lines in our country, the world, and for our generation’s future, we are prepared to take louder, bolder escalated action next fall if the Board does not commit to divestment this weekend.

 

Could this be my final divestment column?

in Columns/Opinions by

On April 17, the faculty overwhelmingly passed a formal resolution in support of a proposal to divest Swarthmore’s separately-managed funds and reinvest in sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. This resolution capped an historic four weeks for the divestment movement here at Swarthmore and internationally. Just the previous day, alumni had delivered 1083 petitions for divestment, along with 360 pledges from alumni to withhold their donations until the Board commits to divestment. We received endorsements from prominent Swarthmore alumni including Christiana Figueres ’79 (the UN Climate Chief) and Dean Baker ’80 (the co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy Research). Our action began a national wave of escalation and series of major victories around the world. In just the last month, Syracuse University, the Guardian Media Group, SOAS University of London, and even Prince Charles all committed to move to fossil fuel free investment.

As the movement has continued to make significant strides, Swarthmore College — the birthplace of the movement — has remained behind the curve, putting at risk our reputation as an institution committed to leadership for the common good and the continued financial health of our endowment. Meanwhile, communities around the world are facing the increasingly deadly impacts of climate change, and the earth’s climate is nearing a ‘tipping point.’ If we do not peak global emissions within the next 5-10 years, we may set off an irreversible climate catastrophe. Given this reality, we have a responsibility as an institution to be asking ourselves: how can we maximally leverage our political, social, and economic power to change this political dynamic at the same time that we are continuing on-campus emissions reductions?

While the Board touts Swarthmore’s construction of more sustainable buildings and movement toward carbon neutrality, the urgency of the climate crisis demands we take an all-of-the-above approach. While we are taking steps on campus to be more sustainable, it makes no sense for us to be undermining these decisions by legitimizing through our investments an industry that lobbies against renewable energy and prevents climate action.

The Board consistently notes that the purpose of the endowment is to ensure the College can pursue its mission over the long-term and continue to educate thousands of students. The fossil fuel industry, whose business plan would lock-in warming of greater than 2 degrees Celsius within the next 30 years, fundamentally undermines the purpose of the endowment and the mission of the College. This weekend, the Board will be considering our proposal and that of the faculty, giving us the chance to put Swarthmore on the right side of history.

For decades, the climate movement has tried (and failed) to lobby Congress to take meaningful action on the climate. Meanwhile, in 2013, one industry-backed group, ALEC, pushed 70 state-level bills to hinder the development of renewable energy. Even during the non-election year of 2013, the industry spent $156 million on direct lobbying efforts alone (not including research or campaign contributions). The fact is that we can’t outspend or outlobby the fossil fuel industry. They have the money, the lobbyists, and the infrastructure, but they do not have a monopoly on legitimacy. The most important social movements of the past century — civil rights, women’s suffrage, environmentalism — did not transform society by bankrupting or out-lobbying the segregationists, the patriarchs, and the industry barons. They won because they delegitimized an unjust status quo, shifted an entire political culture, and opened the door to previously unwinnable change.

The divestment movement that began right here has grown into the most powerful climate campaign ever.  An Oxford University study, “Stranded Assets,” found that “the outcome of this stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has triggered, poses a far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.” Stigmatized firms “suffer from a bad image that scares away suppliers, subcontractors, potential employees, and customers,” leading to the “cancellation of multibillion-dollar contracts or mergers/acquisitions.”

And the fossil fuel industry is taking notice. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is even attempting to render divestment illegal, claiming that it unfairly burdens them because “stigmatization [from divestment] makes it difficult for an industry to engage with its customers, attract employees, and more importantly, access capital for investment purposes.” In its annual SEC filing, Peabody Coal, the world’s largest private sector coal company, listed the fossil fuel divestment as a significant risk to their profitability in the coming year. The report warned that fossil fuel divestment “may adversely affect the demand for and price of securities issued by us, and impact our access to the capital and financial markets.” NRG, the largest publicly-traded power producer in the country, built a leading electricity business from coal and other conventional power plants. The company cited stigmatization due to divestment as a reason to reduce its carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2050.

As a prestigious liberal arts college and a campus where the entire movement began, a divestment commitment from Swarthmore would be a major victory in the fight for climate justice. If conducted in an orderly and responsible manner, divestment is either cost-neutral or, according to the Board’s own expert, Gregory Kats, would likely have a small positive effect on returns.

While the faculty’s proposal differs from Mountain Justice’s, either would be an historic step for Swarthmore College and for the international fight against climate change. Given this, the question we expect the Board to discuss this weekend is not whether to divest, but how broad and how fast of a divestment commitment to make.

If, for some reason, the Board refuses to respond to the mandate from students, faculty, and alumni for action this weekend, it would not just be a lost opportunity to show Swarthmore’s leadership on climate change and issues of social justice, but it would be a step backwards in the international struggle for climate justice. As the birthplace of the fossil fuel divestment movement, and as an elite liberal arts college with a $1.9 billion endowment, Swarthmore is in the international spotlight. Having garnered international press and sparked a wave of national escalation and movement victories, our sit-in had only focused this spotlight more on Swarthmore. If  the Board chooses to reject the faculty divestment resolution they will lend Swarthmore’s extensive social and political capital to the fossil fuel industry and signal to the world that the fossil fuel industry’s plan to burn five times as much carbon as the UN says is ‘reasonably safe’ is compatible with our institutional values of civic leadership and social justice. As world leaders prepare to negotiate a landmark climate agreement in the lead-up to the UN Climate Conference in Paris this fall, this is the wrong message to send at the worst possible time.

The coming months are critical for the future livability of this planet. Chris Niemczewski and the Board of Managers have a choice: to make history or be vilified with it. To invest in a rogue industry or join us in declaring the end to the fossil fuel era. To stand with us as our generation demands a stable future, or to side with an industry attempting to extract every last bit of profit from the earth at the expense of those already most marginalized. Given the Board’s professed commitment to action on climate and our College community, we hope to work with them to put Swarthmore on the right side of history. However, if the Board chooses to continue lending our College’s legitimacy to the fossil fuel industry, we will be back, stronger, louder, and more powerful than before come September. Divestment is too important an issue to abandon and the repercussions of staying invested in fossil fuels are too dire to stop fighting.

Whether it is the faculty proposal or ours that the Board approves, here’s to hoping this can be the conclusion of The Orange Square.

 

Divestment: It’s not a gesture – it’s an imperative

in Opinions/Rethinking Green by

The fossil fuel divestment movement began at Swarthmore four years ago and has since spread to campuses and institutions around the world.  On perhaps the most significant issue of our age, the need to slow climate change, Swarthmore students have established themselves as global leaders.

On March 19, after years of well-researched calls for divesting the college’s endowment from fossil fuels, students raised the ante with a peaceful sit-in to press their case to the Board of Managers.  As alumni, we are proud to support the arduous efforts of these students, who force us to confront the consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels.

Over 1000 Swarthmore alumni have signed a divestment petition and over 350 of us have pledged to withhold our donations to the college until the Board commits to a plan to divest from fossil fuels.  Those of us who are withholding our donations have not done so lightly.  We act out of a love for the College and a belief that student action for divestment is acting out of the college’s highest values and ideals.

This Thursday, a group of alumni led by John Braxton ‘70, recipient of an honorary degree from Swarthmore in 2010, will deliver petitions to the Alumni Office urging the Board to divest and pledging to withhold donations.  While we are heartened to see that our actions are forcing the Board to shift, the recent suggestion by Investments Committee Chair Chris Niemczewski that the Board create a separate fund for donors who do not wish to contribute to investments in fossil fuels is an insufficient effort to attract our donations. We are concerned with the investment of the much larger pool of funds already in the endowment, not just this year’s donations.

The vital steps that the College is taking to reduce its carbon footprint through conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy are not sufficient.  Swarthmore also needs to use its considerable influence by publicly divesting from fossil fuels.

It is evident that divestment by itself will not halt global warming.  However, the Board’s characterization of divestment as a mere “gesture” shows a profound misunderstanding of the role that divestment campaigns have played in withdrawing the social license that target organizations need to retain their influence.  Such actions by prominent institutions can, and already have had global impacts. NRG, the largest publicly traded energy company in the US, recently committed to derive 90% of its electricity from renewables by 2050, and cited the fossil fuel divestment movement’s political pressure as a major factor in the decision.

Already, more than 300 institutions worldwide have committed to divestment from fossil fuels, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Guardian Media group, Stanford and Syracuse Universities, and Sweden’s $37 billion AP2 pension fund.  Since Swarthmore’s sit-in began, students elsewhere have staged sit-ins on their campuses—including Harvard, Yale, Tulane, Bowdoin, and UC Berkeley.  The divestment movement is the leading edge of a large, burgeoning movement for action on climate policy, and investments in fossil fuels are carrying increasingly large risks.  Insurance companies were, in fact, warned about those risks by their regulators in the Bank of England this past March 3.

Recent studies by investment firms including MSCI, Bloomberg, and Standard and Poors have found that portfolios without fossil fuels have begun to outperform those that contain fossil fuels over the last decade.  The repeated claim that divestment would immediately cost the endowment $10 to 20 million per year is not plausible even if we consider historic yields for fossil fuels vs. the broader market.  If 8% of a $1.9 Billion endowment is in fossil fuels, that is a $150 million investment. For those funds to produce an extra $10 million above average market returns annually, fossil fuels investments would need to have outperformed the rest of market by 6.5%. In fact, the opposite is true — fossil free funds have outperformed the market average over 1.2% annually over the last five years. Moreover, the claim that we could not find adequate fund managers is unfounded. Our largest investments consultant, Cambridge Associates has offered to assist us in identifying fossil free investment opportunities and Investments Committee Chair Chris Niemczewski has admitted that even his own firm does not invest in fossil fuels.

Climate scientists are in agreement that 80% of the fossil fuels now in the ground need to remain there if we are to avoid an environmental disaster.  Several large international institutions, including HSBC, have issued warnings on the investment risk posed by a “carbon bubble,” in which stock valuations are based on reserves that can never be burned.  Peabody Coal, for example, was dropped from the S&P 500 last September 19, reflecting its poor stock performance which was apparently based on investors realizing that its coal assets would be stranded and unsellable.

There are immediate divestment steps the Board could take easily.  While the specifics of how the college’s endowment is invested are tightly held, we understand that perhaps one fifth is held in separately managed funds.  The Board could commit to an extended process for divestment, instruct the managers of those funds to divest from fossil fuels as fast as they can,  while the investment committee works with other financial managers on a longer-term plan for the more involved task of divesting from commingled funds.

Would a commitment by Swarthmore to divest make any difference?  Swarthmore could be the first top-tier college or university in country to commit to full divestment.  Doing so would solidify the reputation that Swarthmore Mountain Justice has established for the college as a global leader, making the college an even greater magnet for talented students.  If Swarthmore divests loudly and boldly, many other colleges and universities will take notice.

The argument that the endowment should not be subject to the pressures of myriad ‘social causes’ is grounded in the recognition that the social cause most important to donors over the years has been the wellbeing of the college and its students.  However, climate change is not just another social issue.  Absent action to restrain the burning of fossil fuels, the wellbeing of current students and even the long-term existence of the institution will be put at risk.  Thus, fossil fuel divestment is a course of action that serves the dominant concern of the thousands who have contributed to building the endowment over the past century and a half.

Student disenchantment with the college’s intransigence over Apartheid divestment reportedly led to lower giving by classes who were on campus prior to the college’s decision to divest in 1986.  That is not surprising, given the tendency to be more generous with institutions whose values you can wholeheartedly embrace. The college risks a similar impact on its endowment this time.

Swarthmore’s reputation for encouraging social responsibility in our students is likewise at risk in the absence of Board action.  How can we pretend that we are educating students to work for justice if we turn our backs on divestment.  We already know that the most marginalized people of the world are already suffering the most from climate change, and they are the ones who have contributed least to the problem.  Simple fairness requires that those of us in positions of privilege take every step we can to bring about climate justice. We urge the Board to reaffirm the college’s highest purposes and ideals, and in the light of the humanitarian disasters that climate change will cause, that surely requires divestment.

Swarthmore publicity often highlights the college’s Quaker heritage.  Quakers believe in the testimony of living simply on the Earth and recognizing the importance of all living things. Contributing to climate change is not compatible with historical or current Quaker beliefs. Quakers all over the world are working hard building the divestment movement and pressing for responsible action on climate.

We call on the Board of Managers to recognize and support the actions of the students who are sitting in and encourage them in their activism.  While we are pleased that the Board agreed to put divestment on the agenda at their May meeting, we know this is not enough. We call on the entire Swarthmore community, especially the faculty, to show their support for divestment in a tangible way.  Your support will convince the Board of Managers that divestment is a necessary next step for Swarthmore and that the Swarthmore community expects a divestment commitment from the Board in May.

When we look back on this period in history, we will all be proud if we can say we, as members of the Swarthmore, took part in a significant movement to take back our climate, one step at a time, for our own sakes and for the sake of the many lives to come that will depend upon a livable planet.

 

signatories:

Lucinda White Lohr ‘43

Peter B.  Meyer ‘65

Fran Putnam ‘69

Spencer C. Putnam ‘67

Menno Van Wyk ‘67

Rob Briggs ‘71

Sheila Magee ‘81

Ruth Woodliff-Stanley ‘85

Nathan Woodliff-Stanley ‘85

Susannah McCandless ’98

Hannah Jones ‘12

Ben Hattem ‘12

Andrew Greenblatt ‘13

William Lawrence ‘13

Dinah DeWald ‘13

Aaron Dockser ‘13

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