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environmentalism

in Letter to the Editor/Opinions by

Dear President Smith,

Since the founding of Swarthmore in 1864, the college has educated students in terms of global impact and social change. From Helen Magill to Micah White, students have been encouraged to engage in community and speak out against injustice; to become righteous voices in troubling times and recognize the responsibility that such an education endows upon them.

It is only fair that we call on our own leaders to do the same.

Here in Pennsylvania, methane from fracking is polluting our air, oil pipelines are spilling into our water, and rising temperatures endanger the economy and our lives. On the west side of our country, we’re burning, and on the east, we’re drowning. All the while, Swarthmore continues to have an endowment invested in the fossil fuel industries that catalyze this destruction.

In addition, our federal government is recklessly rolling back environmental protections that affect targeted regions and groups of people within the country. Right now, world leaders are gathered in Bonn, Germany, negotiating how to uphold the Paris Climate Agreement after the world’s biggest economy has withdrawn. Across the nation, local leaders, from mayors and governors to college and university presidents like you, are committing to show leadership when our President refuses to.

But we are at a turning point in history, and must make our commitments real by standing up every time that our voice is needed. We write to you, as your students, asking that you choose to stand on the right side by endorsing divestment from fossil fuels.

On November 18th, the Sunrise movement will be hosting ceremonies in Philadelphia and over two dozen other cities across the country, commemorating what we love and have to lose to climate change. We will be building our legacy, and burying a time capsule that will be unearthed in 50 years. It will be a time for mourning, for reckoning, for uniting, and for building our future.

If you meet our request, you are invited to join us on the 18th at the Philadelphia City Hall and contribute your commitment and a letter or item to the time capsule. We have asked our politicians to refuse money from fossil fuel billionaires, commit to 100% renewable energy by 2050, and halt the construction of dangerous new fossil fuel infrastructure. Swarthmore has committed to be carbon neutral and is growing its sustainability initiatives, but we continue to profit from the fossil fuel industry that we are otherwise trying to stop. Just as we want our political leaders to represent us and reject fossil fuel money, we want our educational leaders to represent us too.  If Swarthmore wants to be remembered as a leader on climate, we must divest from the dangerous fossil fuel industry.  

Overwhelming majorities of students, faculty, staff and alumni have made clear time and time again how we want to be remembered. We know the Swarthmore we are proud of, and we are committed to forging ahead and building a just and equitable future, where all people have access to clean water and safe homes. We would love nothing more than for you to lead with us, and be remembered as somebody who chose to stand up in the face of corrupt politics and fossil fuel money.

But if you choose to remain silent, we will document that as well. In 2067, when the time capsule is unearthed, Swarthmore has two potential legacies. Students might remember Swarthmore as a leader in the fight against climate change: the birthplace of the fossil fuel divestment movement, supporting necessary measures to move our society away from the coal and gas of yesterday and towards the clean energy economy of tomorrow.  

Or, Swarthmore could look back upon 2017 as the year of a lost promise. When local leaders across the world were pledging to take action on climate change, the institution of Swarthmore chose to remain silent in the face of climate devastation.

President Smith, there are two paths in front of you: one where you stand with the fossil fuel billionaires who endanger our health and wellbeing, and another where you stand with the students of Swarthmore who are asking you to be the kind of leader they are taught to be.

This is your chance to choose your climate legacy. You have until November 18.

Sincerely,

Gabriel Brossy de Dios, September Porras Payea, and Aru Shiney-Ajay
Members of Sunrise Swarthmore

(Formerly Swarthmore Mountain Justice)

Let’s Give a Damn: Trump Game

in Campus Journal by

 

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.

Support of Swarthmore Mountain Justice Student Escalation

in Opinions by

A child in Chester is diagnosed with asthma; a family is forced to leave their demolished home in the Philippines; the Niger Delta ecosystem is destroyed and indigenous groups are forcibly evicted and murdered; indigenous groups in Canada are forcibly evicted; subsistence farmers in Malawi — no longer able to survive — migrate to the city; voters in Florida are disenfranchised; a McDonald’s is built in Sri Lanka; a mass extinction of species occurs; a fertilizer plant in India explodes; a mountain in North Carolina becomes a strip mine; a historic neighbourhood in Philadelphia becomes a strip mall; a drone strike hits a school in Yemen; the richest 1 percent of US citizens consolidate more than one-fifth of the nation’s wealth; an island of discarded plastics floats in the Pacific Ocean.

All of these seemingly unrelated events are directly or indirectly consequences of the fossil fuel industry’s “business as usual.”

Fossil fuel companies actively destroy our world’s ecosystems, undermine democratic institutions at home and abroad, and poison and exploit people worldwide, moving us ever closer to the point of no return.

It is unconscionable that our beloved Swarthmore College seeks to gain financially from the destructive operations of fossil fuel corporations.

Experts have reasoned, students have implored, faculties have encouraged, and alumni have voiced: fossil fuel profits have no place in the College’s investment portfolio.

Yet, despite the growing opposition to the College’s practice, the board and management have yet to take decisive action on the issue.

In such a situation, students have had no choice but to operate outside the official, established channels of negotiation. As we have seen in the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-Apartheid struggle, and numerous indigenous peoples’ struggles, disruption of everyday affairs in the name of a just cause is an essential component of creating the just, equitable, and sustainable future we know is possible.

The majority of the students, faculty members, staff, and managers at Swarthmore College may never face the full brunt of the fossil fuel industry’s current destructive effects, nor will they suffer the acute effects of the changing climate in the future, but we must think beyond the Swat Bubble, into the future.

To invest means to gain profit when the industry profits. When the fossil fuel industry profits, people and the planet pay. There is, however, another way forward. Swarthmore can begin with divestment and then strive to regain its position as a leader among higher educational institutions’ social and environmental responsibility. It is long overdue that Swarthmore College joins Stanford, the New School, the College of Marshall Islands, the cities of Seattle, San Francisco, Madison, Oakland, Örebro, and Santa Fe, and the numerous other institutions who have said no to money laced with pollution, blood, suffering, and potential catastrophe.

Meanwhile, farmers in Mali resist GMO seeds; citizens in New York pass anti-fracking legislation; indigenous groups in Canada block a transnational pipeline; the Quechua in Ecuador continue to fend off oil companies; the women of San José del Golfo lead a 24 hour barricade to prevent mining on their land; asylum seekers and refugees — displaced by famine, war, and climate change — fight for freedom in new lands; and students occupy a college office, demanding an end to profiting from fossil fuels. Just as all the problems are connected, so are the resistance movements. Action anywhere chips away at the domination and exploitation experienced all over the globe.

It is inspiring to see these courageous students determined to ensure Swarthmore remains true to its values of social responsibility and that it uses its financial position to send a message to the most destructive industry in the history of humanity. These students’ forward thinking and commitment to their ideals make me proud to be a Swattie even when I am ashamed of my College. The question is no longer “what can we do?” but is now “what are we willing to do?”

Fight on, Swatties!

Not just a fossil fuel-free investment portfolio, but a fossil fuel-free future!

In solidarity,

Ladulé Lakolosarah ’09

In refusing to divest, the Board has chosen cynicism

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

As a young writer in my 20s, not long after publishing one of the first books for a general audience on climate change, I was invited to Swarthmore to speak. I’ve never forgotten that trip. For one, the glorious campus trees were in bloom. But far more, it was the spirit of the place. The students were engaged, serious, concerned — for a few hours after my talk we sat and talked some more. Though I’ve lectured on hundreds and hundreds of campuses since, Swarthmore always stuck in my mind as an ideal, almost an idyll. In a cynical age, informed earnestness is attractive beyond measure.

Which is why it’s been so painful to watch from a distance as Swarthmore’s Board of Managers has gone steadily about the work of diminishing the college’s reputation.

Climate change is the great question of our time — we’ve just come through the hottest year in human history, and drought now stalks those places not threatened by flood. On an ocean planet, our seas are turning more acidic with each passing month. This is by now unnecessary — we have much of the technology we need to turn off the fossil fuel and replace it with renewable energy. And yet our civilization does so little to respond, mostly because of the power of the fossil fuel industry, the richest enterprise in human history and perhaps the most irresponsible. (Having watched the Arctic melt, the oil companies lined up for the licenses to drill yet more oil from the thawed waters — top that for amorality).

Swarthmore has had the chance to stand its moral weight up against that financial power. It’s had the chance for years, since students were so early to begin this divestment battle. But the Board — with its tight connections to Wall Street — always refused.

And so now the chance to be a leader is past. Dozens of schools, from Stanford to Stockholm, Sydney to Scotland, have done the right thing. Entire religious denominations — the United Church of Christ, the Unitarians — have taken the step. Everyone from the World Bank to the Bank of England to Deutschebank have now pointed out the essential problem of the “carbon bubble”; the UN itself has called for divestment. As have those crazy radicals, the Rockefeller family. If the heirs to the largest fossil fuel fortune on earth have decided it’s neither moral nor prudent to hold on to their coal and oil and gas shares, then what is Swarthmore’s excuse?

Its excuse has always been, “This might cost us a little money.” But in fact if Swarthmore had acted when students first made their request, the endowment would have avoided the plummeting fortunes of the coal industry, the drop in the price of oil. Fossil-free portfolios are handily outperforming broader indexes; as is sometimes the case, Swarthmore could have done well by doing good.

Instead its board chose cynicism. Its members know better — one has made a superb documentary series on climate change. But as often with people of wealth and power, the desire to cling to the past is strong, and nowhere is it stronger than on Wall Street, from where many members of the Investment Committee hail. Though they are doubtless fine women and men, the investment experts who have been largely responsible for the Board’s entrenchment on this issue, have in fact damaged not just the planet’s but Swarthmore’s future. Viewed from a distance, the only thing Quaker about them on this issue is the way they’ve quaked before the status quo.

And so students have been forced to take the time-honored step of engaging in civil disobedience to underline the moral seriousness of this cause. Around the world people are paying attention: I’ve heard from our volunteer organizers in places like Vanuatu, ripped apart this month by Cyclone Pam, that the divestment movement is an ongoing inspiration for their work. Swarthmore divesting would be the most powerful act of solidarity it could take, by revoking its consent to the fossil fuel industry’s destructive and polluting practices across the globe.

As often happens, the trustees seem to be moved (or at least embarrassed) by the non-violent dedication of their students. They’ve said they will discuss in May the idea of divestment yet again. But if they mean it, let them match in some small way the dedication of their students. We have this thing called Skype: it would be easy enough to hold their meeting now, and show the world that even if Swarthmore has been slow, it still remembers the ground where its roots were sunk.

It will be a pleasure for me to be in Swarthmore again today — too early, maybe, for the flowering trees, but right on time for the flowering of concern and commitment that is the thing the country treasures about this campus.

 

Letter to the Editor

in Opinions by

To the Editor:

“Coal, an Outlaw Enterprise” is the title of a recent New York Times op-ed. The column may not be totally objective since the author, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,  is president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which advocates for clean water. For instance, Kennedy does not mention that we depend on coal for the generation of 40% of the electricity we use in the USA. But he does list a long record of infractions that should concern even the least environmentally aware person.

An explosion at the Big Branch Mine in 2010 killed 29 miners. Investigators found that Massey Energy had breached many safety regulations, resulting in these deaths. Kennedy also mentions the Frasure Creek Mining Company, which falsified information on reports to hide over a thousand Clean Water Act infractions.

The sad truth seems to be that coal companies are willing to despoil our environment and kill miners to make a profit. Although we live in Colorado where mining techniques don’t involve blasting mountains, we live close to one of the most polluting coal-burning power plants in the country. From an airplane or mountaintop it is easy to see the brown haze from this power plant.

As a physician concerned about public health, I am aware of the cost that we all pay for this air pollution. The cost of electricity may seem low when you pay your electric bill. However, if you add in the cost of illnesses caused by air pollution, mercury poisoning, cancer from carcinogens and the estimated costs of climate change, the true cost of a kilowatt-hour is over 23 cents. Even this price does not include the true value of the land that is destroyed by coal mining.

We are surrounded by natural gas wells. We are aware of some of the health problems of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and learning of more as time goes on. In addition, scientists have recently discovered a cloud of methane the size of the state of Delaware over the Four Corners Region, where we live. This is evidently from escaped gas, and is a major contributor to climate change.

Fortunately, there are options. We have had a photovoltaic system on the roof of our home for 9 years that makes all of our electricity. We just installed a second PV array to charge our plug-in Prius that is getting 78 miles to a gallon of gas. It is great to drive with power from the sun!

This Swarthmore couple (we are both class of ’65) is concerned about the world that our granddaughters will know. We believe that climate change will cause hardships that we can barely imagine, and we want to soften that blow for Claire, Kate, Anya and the others who will live into the second half of this century.

Concern for the future is the reason we have changed our investment strategy to be free from fossil fuels. And that is why we ask Swarthmore’s Board of Managers to do the same. Swarthmore’s divestment will not solve climate change, but it is a step in the correct direction. Divestment is morally correct, it will set a good example for the whole College family, and it will avoid financial losses as the value of carbon-based investments lose their value. Now is the time for Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels!

Richard Grossman ‘65 and Gail (Sise) Grossman ‘65

Students to attend UN convention on climate change

in News by

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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