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Sunrise referendum on 1991 divestment ban passes

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On April 19, a Student Government Organization referendum introduced by climate activism student group Swarthmore Sunrise passed with 87% approval. The referendum calls for the Board of Managers to remove a clause from its investment guidelines requiring that the Investment Committee manage the endowment so as to “yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” The board has cited this guideline, which was added in 1991 following divestment from Apartheid South Africa, as a reason not to divest its fossil fuel company holdings. It remains unclear how the Board will respond to the referendum, though the Board has historically not made policy changes from similar student initiatives.

In the referendum, Sunrise makes two demands for the Board. First, they demand that “a discussion of the repeal of the 1991 Ban must be on the agenda for the next Board Meeting, set for May 11th and 12th.” Second, Sunrise demands that “the Ban must be replaced with a holistic investment policy that takes into account both long-term financial results and Swarthmore’s commitment to social responsibility.”

Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, also ran an SGO referendum in February 2017 calling for partial divestment. That referendum passed with 80.5% approval, though President Valerie Smith and then-Board chair Tom Spock ’78 swiftly released a statement affirming its 2015 decision not to divest.

Compared to last year’s partial divestment referendum, the turnout for this referendum was slightly lower. 40.7% of the student body voted on this most recent referendum, compared to 54.3% for the 2017 referendum.

Of those who did vote, 87% approved of the referendum, while 11.5% voted against it. 1.5% students indicated “no preference.”

In May 2015, following a 32-day sit-in in Parrish led by Mountain Justice, then-Board president Gil Kemp ’72 released a letter reporting that the Board had decided against divestment. In the letter, he made an explicit reference to the 1991 investment guidelines as a reason why Board members chose not to divest. The Board reaffirmed this decision in 2017, following the partial divestment referendum.

“What the school has told Sunrise for the past few years has been ‘oh, we can’t divest because we have this policy in place,’” Sunrise member Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20 said. “Our decision was, if that’s the reason we’re given, these are the terms we’re going to talk about.”

Sunrise leaders Shiney-Ajay, Gabriel Brossy de Dios ’20 and September Porras Payea ’20 met with President Smith and her assistant on April 5, prior to publicly introducing the referendum. In this meeting, Smith promised that if the referendum passed, she would bring it up at the May Board meeting.

“We have been in contact with her since and have confirmed that she will personally present it to the Board, though perhaps not necessarily express her opinion on it,” Porras Payea ’20 wrote in an email to The Phoenix. “Ultimately the president of the college is hired by the Board, so her influence is limited, but this is a big step in comparison to past conversations and referendums [sic] she’s been involved with.”

However, it is unclear whether the Board will carry through with the terms of the referendum even if President Smith presents the referendum at the next meeting. The Board has a mixed track record of responding to student referenda; the most recent instance it carried through with the terms of a student referendum was in 1994, when 61% of students voted to fly the American flag above Parrish, an action that many Board members already supported.

“I think it’s really difficult to say the exact impact of the ban on whether [the Board divests],” Shiney-Ajay said.

Vice President for Finance and Administration Greg Brown has also come out in opposition to repealing the 1991 ban. In an op-ed published in The Phoenix, Brown asserted that he, as well as members of the Board, believes that lifting the ban would be a meaningless gesture.

“The College’s investment policy takes into account broader concerns, such as climate change or changes in an investment manager’s stated strategy, when they might materially affect the financial performance of the endowment upon which we rely to support our core mission and goals. Changing the investment policy to make a moral statement with no tangible effect could have the effect of diminishing performance and reducing funding available for critical mission-centric initiatives such as financial aid and academic programs, which is why the Board believes our current policy is the right one for the College,” Brown wrote.

However, Brossy de Dios believes that even if the Board doesn’t repeal the ban, having the referendum in place will give student activists more leverage to push for fossil fuel divestment.

“I worked on the campaign with Mountain Justice and was here for the referendum on partial divestment last year,” Brossy de Dios said. “One of the things around that was that having that referendum even though they had rejected it right-off, it still laid the groundwork and put a lot of pressure on them.”

The guideline was established in 1991, not long after the college had fully divested itself from Apartheid South Africa. In the November 7, 1997 issue of The Phoenix, former College president Alfred Bloom, who assumed his position in 1991 around the time the ban was instated, defended the ban as a means to protect Swarthmore’s educational quality.

“Given the primary responsibility to use our endowment to support our educational mission, there would likely be very few times when we would want to take risks with the financing of that educational purpose by using the endowments to make social… statements. [However], joining the initiative to undercut apartheid, in my opinion, was one such rare moment,” Bloom wrote.

The endowment did lose value following South African divestment, which resulted in temporary pay cuts for staff and a possible decrease in financial aid. However, the actual loss of returns on the endowment, as compared to peer institutions that did not divest, was $917,000, which was considerably less than the $2 million the board allocated to cover endowment losses.

Whether the 1991 ban was an ethical decision was the center point of debate that SGO moderated on Monday night between representatives from Sunrise and representatives from the Swarthmore Conservative Society, who argued against the referendum. Students and faculty members packed into Science Center 101 on Monday night to watch the debate. SGO Co-President David Pipkin ’18 estimates that about 110 people attended. SGO also live-streamed the debate on its Facebook page, which was viewed by 565 people.

Starting with their opening statements, the debaters dove into conversations about whether the 1991 ban was ethical. Porras, who debated on behalf of Sunrise, argued that the ban reflects poorly on the Board’s commitment to social justice.

“The institution of this ban raises a really pressing question: does the Board of Managers regret divesting from South African apartheid?,” Porras said. “The Board of Manager believes that investments should be solely managed for financial reasons. If they truly believe that, then they don’t believe that divesting from apartheid is the right decision. If they do believe that divesting is the right decision, there is no logical reason for this ban to be in place … It very much does not align with our values.”

Swarthmore Conservative Society member Matt Stein ’20 argued that the ban is essential because it prevents the school from taking a stance on issues where the student body has heterogeneous views. He made reference to the Overton window, a term describing the range of ideas considered acceptable within public discourse for politicians.

“The school by divesting from fossil fuels, or any other thing that has views that can be defended within the Overton Window, is essentially saying that those views are antithetical to the university’s values and that students should not be advocating for those views,” Stein said. “That’s completely the opposite of what the university is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas.”

Stein went on to adopt a similar line of reasoning as did Bloom and Dean Brown, and argued that the Ban is a safeguard against divestment for anything but the most extreme cases.

“There are clearly stances such as South African apartheid where views defending are clearly not within the Overton Window, and we should divest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all divestment should be on the table,” Stein said.

Sunrise members pushed back against Swarthmore Conservatives’ argument that divestment ought only to be used in “extreme” cases.

“You mentioned that the Overton Window applies to things that are outside of intellectual discussion, things that deal with overt racism, and cited South African apartheid as dealing with that,” Porras said. “Well, climate is racist. The climate crisis is specifically targeting people of color and low-income communities that are politically, socially and culturally disenfranchised.”

Another concern that the Swarthmore Conservative Society debaters raised was that lifting the ban would make the Board susceptible to future divestment movements. Though the college’s Board of Managers has not faced serious pressure in recent years on issues other than fossil fuel investments, some Board members have expressed concern that fossil fuel divestment might lead to a “slippery slope” toward divestment from private prisons and from companies that support Israeli occupation.

“The fact is that we open a big door by taking away this ban. We open a door to divesting from a bunch of different of things. It’s basically the slippery slope argument,” Stein said.

However, Porras feels that it is antithetical to the college’s values to have a ban on all divestment. She feels that students should have space to have discussions with the board.

“I’m looking at this policy and it’s something specifically… that goes against Swarthmore’s values,” Porras said. “I also think that if there are things on this campus that students feel like looking at they realize they don’t want to be invested in and it’s financially viable to divest from, that’s something students should have the pathway and… be able to have that discourse with the Board without this blanket ban that none of our peer institutions hold.”

The debaters also sparred over whether fossil fuel divestment, specifically, would affect the endowment returns.

“Possible financial returns on the endowment are a social good in itself, in order to make sure that low-income students have greatest opportunities to come here and to make sure that students get the highest quality education possible here so they can continue on to do good things,” Conservative Society President Jorge Tello ’20 said.

Shiney-Ajay argued that the partial divestment proposal they introduced with the 2017 referendum would absorb most of the potential costs of divestment. The proposal calls for the college to divest from its fossil fuel holdings in separately managed accounts, or funds that solely respond to the college. For funds managed by other organizations, Sunrise would have Board request that investment managers move its holdings to fossil-free accounts, which would eliminate the costs of hiring another manager. She also argued that fossil-free funds are a better long-term investment given current market trends.

“There’s no reason to think that divesting from fossil fuels would significantly lower our endowment,” Shiney-Ajay said. “Even if it were, one, [the endowment has] really high returns, and two, there are choices other than financial aid the school could choose to cut back on. Sunrise Swarthmore has said repeatedly that we won’t be supporting any plan for divestment that cuts back on financial aid.”

Susanna McGrew ’20, who attended the debate, did not know how she felt about the referendum and the ban. As of Monday night, McGrew had not decided whether to vote in favor or against the referendum, or whether to vote at all.

“The ban, I think, is kind of immaterial, because the ban just prevents us from making these decisions, it’s just a stop-gag in a way,” McGrew said. “I think that it’s probably an okay stop-gag to have because most of the time I think we don’t want to divest, but does the ban prevent us from considering exceptional cases? Maybe it does. There’s no language about that in the ban. Should it be amended to make way for exceptional cases? Probably not, because I think that could get into the whole ‘slippery slope’ argument.”

Reuben Gelley Newman ’21 felt more confident about his vote on the referendum.

“I’m voting ‘yes’ because I think Swarthmore has to back up its professed social justice values with real action on an institutional level,” Gelley Newman wrote to The Phoenix. “The Board’s investments should obviously make financial sense, but must be true to the values held by students, faculty, and the institution as a whole.”

If President Smith keeps her word, the referendum will go before the Board in May, whose response will determine whether or not social considerations should be taken into account for the college’s future financial decisions.

Sunrise pushes for new divestment referendum

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Sunrise Swarthmore collected digital signatures last week in an effort to call a Student Government Organization referendum on the school’s investment in fossil fuel companies and the 1991 ban on political considerations when investing. That petition passed with 197 signatures, 29 more than were needed. Sunrise, previously known as Mountain Justice, describes itself as an organization dedicated to stopping climate change and promoting job creation. As Mountain Justice, Sunrise activists were responsible for the student referendum on fossil fuels last academic year

“We are the representative of the student body so if a group of students want to bring up an issue and want to hold a referendum, our goal is to help in the execution of that,” said Nancy Yuan ’20, Co-President of SGO.

To call an SGO referendum, Sunrise needed to collect signatures from 10 percent of the student body. This got the referendum on the SGO ballot, after which SGO assigned a 48-hour voting period beginning Mon. April 16 at 8 p.m. and ending Wed. April 18 at 8 p.m. Students will be able to vote online during that time. There will also be a debate, per the new SGO constitution, on the referendum on April 16 from 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Sci 101. Sunrise needs one-third of the student body to vote in favor of the referendum to pass.

“The part that is important to us is the debate that will happen, so that people who also have opposing views to this can express their concerns, so the student body can be the most informed they can be about this, because this is a campus issue,” said Yuan.

Sunrise is asking the college, but more specifically the Board of Managers, to divest from fossil fuel companies. The divestment campaign began at the college in 2010 and is the longest-running fossil fuel divestment campaign in the world, according to Aru Shiney-Ajay ’20, a student leader in Sunrise.

The group is also asking that the Board repeal the 1991 ban preventing the board from divesting for social reasons. The Board announced their decision to divest from apartheid South Africa in 1986 following over a decade of student activism. By 1990, the school had fully divested In 1991, the Board adopted a new investment strategy, specifying that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.”

The first time that the board announced it would stick by its 1991 financial decision was in September 2013. In 2015, students staged a protest in Parrish Parlors for 32 consecutive days calling for divestment from fossil fuels. Last year, an SGO referendum passed calling the Board of Managers to divest. In response, the Board reaffirmed their 2015 commitment to the 1991 resolution.

To a portion of students on campus, that 1991 strategy appears morally incomprehensible when juxtaposed with the 1986 decision to divest.

“The precedent the school set [by instituting the 1991 ban and not listening to last year’s referendum] was that the school was wrong in divesting from apartheid which means that the school is saying they should not have done that and they should have continued to support that,” Yuan said.

But Timothy Burke, a professor specializing in modern African history and chair of the History Department, has been critical of these efforts. In an opinion piece for The Phoenix published in 2015 titled “Against Divestment,” Burke writes that divestment from oil companies is perhaps simply window dressing. He argues that many other companies that the college is likely to invest in are as responsible for human rights violations, climate change, and armaments as are oil companies.  

“If the goal is moral purity—a college without dependence upon destructive, exploitative, unethical businesses or institutions—it is hard to imagine the investment screen that could accomplish that to general satisfaction,” wrote Burke.

Nevertheless, Shiney-Ajay and Jissel Becerra Reyes ’20, another member of Sunrise, say that the Board of Managers is resisting efforts to repeal the ban and divest because they had such a negative experience in 1991.

“After the Board of Managers divested from apartheid in 1991, they [supposedly] cited the process as being too scarring for them. And I think that points to the Board of Managers being very avoidant and not being completely comfortable answering moral and social questions about investment, and I think that is very antithetical to Swarthmore’s stated purpose to take into consideration social and ethical concerns,” said Shiney-Ajay.

“It’s just a matter of time before the Board has to engage with these questions,” said Becerra Reyes.

Some pessimism about divestment

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Sunrise has had a good week. SGO recently announced that they will invest surplus funds from the student activity budget into BlackRock, an investment fund that prioritizes environmental sustainability and refuses to invest in fossil fuels. While this is not really “divestment” as Sunrise claims, since the money wasn’t invested into fossil fuels in the first place, it’s a good opportunity to talk about the larger issues of divestment that so frequently come up at Swarthmore. Taking strong action to combat climate change is important, and divestment can be a step towards greener institutions and communities, but it has serious limitations.

The first and most important point about divestment is that it has virtually no concrete effect. While institutions of higher education like Swarthmore control enormous amounts of money in their endowments, they pale in comparison to the total capitalization of the fossil fuel industry: 60 trillion dollars worldwide. For reference, the total endowments of every university in the United States make up less than 1 percent of that number — and each school has only a fraction of its endowment invested in fossil fuels. The divestment of such a miniscule amount of equity only leads to its purchase by investors who don’t care that the stocks are in fossil fuels.

There are a few opportunity costs to this course of action, the first being that by divesting, the divester loses all sway with the company in question. Instead of, for example, forming a bloc with similarly inclined investors and pushing for the company to shift away from fossil fuels, divestment leaves the green side out in the cold. Better to stay in, with access to information about the workings of the company and lines of communication with other investors who can make a boardroom push. The resources and institutional knowledge that fossil fuel grants have in research and development can and sometimes are hugely important in developing green technologies. In areas ranging from carbon capture to efficient power storage to biofuels, fossil fuel firms have the ability and — sometimes — the wherewithal to pursue new solutions. And a diversified, dynamic approach to research and development is likelier to be more successful than efforts at top-down investment (see the U.S. government’s disastrous investment in Solyndra).

It’s also needlessly reductive — there are many different types of fossil fuels and ways to produce them, and some are much better than others. Oil is cleaner and less destructive to extract and transport than coal, for example. A pipeline is a lot less likely to spill than a truck or a train is to crash, burns no fuel for transport, and is less ecologically destructive than new rail or road systems, according to a study by the Canadian Fraser Institute. And natural gas, which has led to most of the growth in American energy over the past decade (and a large part of our economic recovery in the Midwest, creating 750,000 jobs), is far cleaner than both. According to Brad Hager, the director of MIT’s Earth Resources Laboratory, it actually reduced our carbon footprint. While gas is by no means a solution to climate change, it is far preferable to other sources that would otherwise supply power green energy still cannot. Wind, solar, and geothermal energy still suffer from serious problems with location, intermittency, and storage; nuclear energy is almost impossible to get off the ground politically.

Campaigns for divestment can also sidestep the problems of consumption. The reason that firms still mine or drill or frack for fossil fuels is because there is a persistent demand for them, which divestment is incapable of addressing. And in developing countries, the problem is both more pronounced and more open to solutions. While countries like India, China, and Brazil will have to deal with population growth, greater industrialization and their accompanying emissions, they also have a more leeway to build greener infrastructure, due to having significantly less existing energy and power infrastructure in the first place. However, it’s just not feasible for fossil fuels to be taken out of the equation completely: we can’t even do that in the U.S. yet.

Governments that are in the process of trying to lift millions of people out of poverty are going to have to use fossil fuels alongside green energy. Trying to incentivize less harmful fossil fuels like shale gas, using safer modes of transport like pipelines, and encouraging companies like Shell that invest in clean energy systems and advocate for action on climate change, are the best methods for dealing with the “mixed” economy we’re stuck with for the near future.

All of this is not to say divestment has no effect. Divestment is a symbolic action. Individual decisions to consume less, to advocate for action against climate change, and work for innovative solutions may come from this smaller action. I just worry that amid all the noise of sit-ins, protest, and public statements, we’ll lose sight of how much else actually needs to be done. There is nothing wrong with a symbol, but we can’t let it get in the way of action.

Students Lead on Divestment — When Will the Board?

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Seven years ago, a group of Swarthmore students took a trip to West Virginia, where they witnessed the brutal injustice of mountaintop coal removal. Horrified in the face of the climate crisis, they decided to take action and launched the world’s first fossil fuel divestment campaign — Mountain Justice. Divestment aims to move investments out of the fossil fuel industry in order to stigmatize the industry socially and politically. It is immoral for an institution like Swarthmore, which prides itself on social responsibility, to continue to invest in companies that threaten our futures and the safety of our communities.  

Fast forward seven years, and fossil fuel divestment campaigns have spread across the world. By 2016, the third annual Arabella Report revealed over 688 institutions across 76 countries had committed to divesting over 6 trillion dollars. Recently, New York City chose to divest from fossil fuels, following on the heels of the Rockefeller Brothers. Institutions ranging from Yale and Columbia to Pitzer and Barnard have divested as well. Divestment is gaining momentum and cannot be ignored. As these victories pile up, they send a clear message: the fossil fuel industry has outlived its welcome, and the end of its era is here.

The clearest evidence of the movement’s success comes from the fossil fuel industry itself. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is 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.” The Alberta Oil Magazine was more blunt, warning that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” Last January, when over a hundred students from Swarthmore walked out of class calling on the school to divest, a Twitter account called ‘Divestment Facts’ run by the Independent Petroleum Institute of America even tweeted #stayinclass in an attempt to dissuade students from showing moral leadership.

But as the fossil fuel industry often cites, as the tide of international victories for the divestment movement grew, Swarthmore has remained silent. Last year, a referendum on divestment passed by a landslide: 80.5 percent of voters agreed that Swarthmore College should divest from fossil fuels. The referendum shows a clear mandate from the student body for the Board to take action on divestment. Yet despite overwhelming support from faculty, students and staff, international news coverage from the New York Times and the Guardian of our campaign, and the UN climate chief calling on Swarthmore to divest from fossil fuels, the College has refused to divest.

To understand why, we need to look a little further back into our history.

Sunrise’s (formerly Mountain Justice’s) fossil fuel divestment campaign is not the first divestment campaign on Swarthmore’s campus. Swarthmore students began to organize against apartheid in South Africa as early as 1965, and in 1978 they launched a divestment campaign with a petition highlighting the injustices of apartheid, the College’s investments in companies involved in South Africa, and the College’s Quaker values.

The anti-apartheid divestment campaign spanned eleven long years: eleven years of being ignored, sidestepped, and rejected by the Board. Students circulated petitions, staged sit-ins, invited speakers, formed human chains, and slept on Parrish porch. Despite the Board rejecting divestment four times, students and faculty persisted, taking increasingly escalated action, and in 1989 the Board committed to a plan to divest from apartheid by 1990. Due to student efforts, the College finally decided that it was morally and politically unthinkable to continue to support apartheid.


In 1991, following the decision to divest from apartheid, the Board adopted new investment guidelines stating that the “Investment Committee manages the endowment to yield the best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.” In other words, they decided to never again take ‘social objectives’ into account.  This 1991 Ban implies that divesting from apartheid was a mistake — and that’s unacceptable.

Today, we are in the midst of a terrifying climate crisis. 2017 was a year of natural disasters. Hurricanes, wildfires, and record temperatures ravaged our communities. Those most impacted by the crisis — indigenous communities, communities of color, and low-income communities— are the first to be hit and the last to be rebuilt. Every passing year shatters previous records, and people across the country are becoming increasingly alarmed about the climate crisis.

Sunrise is going to make 2018 the year when no politician can take money from fossil fuel billionaires and claim to care about our future— and that goes for our institutions too.  We’ve just seen an incredible victory for our divestment campaign— SGO has made the decision to follow the student mandate from last year’s referendum and invested in a fossil-free fund. This decision is an incredible testament to student leadership and the Swarthmore community. It’s a huge victory, and it should be celebrated— but it isn’t enough.

This Friday, the Board of Managers is coming to campus for the first time this semester. Sunrise and SGO will be hosting a joint press conference to announce and celebrate our divestment victory in Parrish Parlors at 12:30. Join the student body in calling on the Board to divest from fossil fuels and lead with us.

Why does Swarthmore invest in a rogue industry?

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In his op-ed earlier this month, Professor Tim Burke questioned the efficacy of divestment, suggesting that instead of divestment, we should focus on changing consumption, arguing that doing so would have more symbolic impact than divestment. Specifically, Professor Burke suggested that it would be better if “students, faculty, and staff agreed, for example, to forgo 20% of their previous travel by air during an academic year.” This should not be an either/or. Climate change is one of the most serious threats our generation faces and the fossil fuel industry — one of the most profitable industries ever — is doing everything it can to stop climate action. Sustainability must be embedded in every aspect of our institution, and that must include our endowment.

I agree with Professor Burke — social movements “succeed when they are truly multi-sited” campaigns that include civic institutions, individuals, and popular culture as well as higher education. If fossil fuel fuel divestment had never grown out of elite academic institutions, its political efficacy would be relatively marginal: divestment works only when it galvanizes broader shifts in the political and social climate. However, the fossil fuel divestment movement has, more effectively than any climate campaign before it, grown into an international movement comprised of an unprecedented coalition that brings in all parts of society. Thousands of individuals and hundreds of institutions around the world have divested, collectively declaring that continued investments in fossil fuels are antithetical to a just and sustainable future. Institutions ranging from Norway’s $850 billion sovereign oil wealth fund and Sweden’s $34 billion AP2 public pension fund to the city of Seattle and the World Council of Churches have committed to divestment.

Due to this growth, the fossil fuel divestment movement has eroded the power of the fossil fuel industry and shifted the conversation on climate. A recent study from Oxford University found that the fossil fuel divestment movement concluded 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,” going on to call this the fastest growing divestment movement ever. The movement has been able to shift the thinking of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, which now offers fossil-free investment options, and the Rockefeller Brother Fund, which recently divested its endowment built off oil fortunes. NRG, the nation’s largest publicly traded independent power producer, just committed to reducing emissions 90 percent by 2050, citing the pressure created by the fossil fuel divestment movement.

The fossil fuel industry’s recent attacks on the divestment movement are a testament to its success. 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 December 2013, Alberta Oil Magazine was more blunt, warning that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” The Independent Petroleum Association of America even funded a recent study arguing that divestment would hurt endowments. Interestingly, our Investment Committee Chair Chris Niemczewski’s intellectually dishonest arguments claimed that divestment would cost more than this report from the fossil fuel industry themselves did. (His arguments made unrealistic assumptions, such as claiming that, in order to divest, we would need to radically change our endowment structure, and relying on discredited studies to support his claims).

I also agree with Professor Burke’s calls for reductions in consumption, but given the short timeline on which we have to act, we must directly challenge the fossil fuel industry’s political power. Because of that power, the political playing field is not level and we, as consumers, do not have as many options as we should. The fossil fuel industry distorts our political system, by injecting billions of dollars into our democracy, which is used to fund climate denialism, lobby to maintain fossil fuel subsidies, and prevent policies, such as a carbon tax, that would help transition us to the just and sustainable future we need. 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 fossil fuel industry corrupts not only our political process, but the academic research that informs political discussion. Just last week, The New York Times exposed how Harvard climate researcher Wei-Hock Soon received more than $1.2 million over the past ten years and that he did not disclose this conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers, violating ethics rules for multiple academic journals. Dr. Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is one of the most-cited climate change ‘skeptics’ by conservative politicians and news shows. In correspondence with his industry funders, Dr. Soon referred to his papers as “deliverables” in exchange for payments. Dr. Soon’s research contradicts the values that Harvard and many other institutions of higher learning are predicated on: truth, science, and leadership for the common good. This is just one of many acts by a rogue industry that puts its short-term profits above the livability of this planet for our generation, and generations to come.

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, they shifted an entire political culture and opened the door to previously unwinnable change.

By repeatedly refusing to even seriously engage with our proposal for divestment by 2020, Chris Niemczewski’s Investments Committee has repeatedly chosen to lend Swarthmore’s legitimacy to this rogue industry. Again and again, the Board of Managers has been told that divestment is possible, and it is powerful. Cambridge Associates, our largest financial advisor, announced last fall that it is willing to help us divest. Financial leaders such as former SEC Commissioner under Ronald Reagan Bevis Longstreth are warning that the top 200 fossil fuel stocks are “severely overpriced in the market” and arguing that colleges and universities have “a compelling reason on financial grounds alone to divest these holdings before the inevitable correction occurs” and the carbon bubble pops.

Even the experts the Board brought in for this month’s Sustainability Charrette implored them to respond to the community mandate for divestment. Hunter Lovins told Board Chair Gil Kemp that “[the world is] watching you. You are on notice.” John Fullerton, former J.P. Morgan Managing Director, expressed surprise that Swarthmore had not yet divested and disagree with Chris Niemczewski’s logic for not divesting. As he explained, divestment is possible, financially practical, and that all the Board needs to do is choose to act. Yet, time and time again, Chris Niemczewski’s Investments Committee has stood in the way of Swarthmore seizing this historic opportunity to show international leadership on climate by committing to divestment.

The divestment movement has put fossil fuel investments in the public eye and, as the college where this movement began, the world is watching our next move. By remaining invested in fossil fuels, we are saying that they are good investments, that the carbon bubble does not exist, and that the fossil fuel industry’s business plan to burn over five times as much carbon as is safe to burn is compatible with our institutional values of social responsibility, truth, and leadership for the common good. This is the wrong message for us to be sending, and as the world prepares to draft the most critical climate agreement ever, it comes at the worst possible time.

Students commit to escalation for divestment from fossil fuels

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On Friday, over 50 Swarthmore students joined hundreds across the nation and around the world in pledging direct action to urge institutions to divest from fossil fuels as part of Global Divestment Day. Swarthmore students partook in Mountain Justice’s launch of the Divestment Escalation Pledge, a project in which students agree to push the college to divest. Many other schools in the United States held their own campus events, including Harvard, Berkeley, Northwestern, Bowdoin, and Tulane.

Guido Girgenti ’15, one of MJ’s leaders, said the group will give training to signers of the petition to prepare them for more involved events coming this spring. MJ plans on engaging in more forms of peaceful activism to push the Board of Managers to go through with divestment, such as sit-in demonstrations.

“By signing the pledge, I am rejecting apathy and passivity, and committing to being an agent in the history that will be written and has been written over the course of this campaign,” wrote Ian Holloway ’17, who signed the pledge.

Lydia Bailey ’16, another signatory, described the impact environmental destruction has on communities as a reason for committing to the divestment movement.

“By investing in fossil fuels, we’re turning our backs on countless families suffering all over the world — families helpless in the face of terrible illnesses, without the privilege of access to medical attention,” said Bailey. She explained that until the college divests, it is complicit in this respect.

Members of MJ also argued that the push for divestment is a necessity for the college. One member, Sophia Zaia ’18, said that divestment would be in line with Swarthmore’s core values.

“By committing to escalate our campaign we are affirming Swarthmore’s values and Quaker heritage. By taking bold action to demand climate justice, we are upholding the very values this school has helped foster in us and capitalizing on the best our education has to offer,” said Zaia.

MJ’s decision to escalate comes in light of a meeting on February 2 that five members of MJ held with five members of the Board of Managers about achieving divestment by 2020. They brought forward a plan that was created with the consultation from the college’s Finance and Investment Office. Neither Gil Kemp, the Chair of the Board, nor Chris Niemczewski, the Investment Committee Chair, attended the meeting.

“The Board of Managers has repeatedly refused to move forward with divestment,” wrote Sara Blazevic ’15 in an MJ press release. Blazevic notes that MJ has met over 30 times with members of the Board in the past three years. The group does not feel that negotiation alone will push the Board to commit to divestment.

“We know every successful social movement for justice and equality reaches this point – when negotiations can lead no further,” wrote Girgenti. “Bold action becomes necessary to shine a spotlight on injustice and force those in power to take responsibility.” Girgenti hopes the group’s assertive approaches, such as participating in Global Divestment day, signing the pledge, and escalation this spring, will pressure the college to seriously consider, and eventually materialize, divestment proposals.

Heating needs make reducing footprint difficult

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

With all of the concern about climate change, it is important that we step back to examine the college’s role in trying to achieve some level of sustainability while coming to terms with a common understanding of what sustainability means. In a general sense, sustainability, the capacity to maintain a certain process or state indefinitely, has come to encompass the larger issue of the impact generated by our activities as a community, and individually, on the world as a whole.

At the forefront of those activities is the use of fossil fuel. The clamor surrounding the extraction and use of fossil fuels obscures the uncomfortable truth that there are few alternatives that possess the concentrated energy found in a gallon of oil or a cubic foot of natural gas. These fuels are important feedstocks for everything from plastics, to textiles, to fertilizers as well as the primary fuel for transportation, heating and electricity. Without these fuels, we could not have built the world we live in today nor produce the goods that we have come to view as essential. In short, without them we would be living in a much different world; I would venture to say a much-diminished world. The argument that we can do without fossil fuels immediately, or even in the near future, has to be accompanied by a list of the items we are willing to give up to keep that fuel in the ground.

Putting aside for the moment the goal of a fossil fuel-free world, the impact of carbon in the atmosphere is an immediate and critical issue. Clearly, burning fossil fuels is a primary source of produced carbon and the college has to lay claim to a portion of it both directly and indirectly. As an institution there is no escaping the fact that we are a carbon contributor and have the potential to mitigate climate impact by the choices we make as a college.

It might interest people to know that the college, and in fact much of the town, burned coal for heat and cooking up until around the Second World War. The heat plant itself was originally an electric power plant that replaced what we think might have been a coal gas plant that provided illumination gas prior to the invention of the light bulb. The underground steam system that the heat plant supports has been in place since the 1920s, when a tunnel was dug and the first pipes were laid up to Parrish Hall. That system was gradually expanded to other buildings as they were constructed and the heat plant was converted to burn heavy fuel oil (#6 fuel oil) in place of coal in the 1950s, followed by another conversion, when the boilers were replaced in the 1970s to enable them to also burn natural gas. Today, that steam system supports heat and domestic hot water in 1,130,000 square feet of campus structures, and the plant has been converted to burn natural gas as the primary fuel, using light oil (#2 fuel oil) as the back-up fuel.

The decision about what fuel we use is an important one, as fuels account for a little over a third of the college’s greenhouse gas emissions. One of the drivers for the conversion to a lighter fuel oil was that the calculated carbon equivalent (COe) emissions in the years we burned heavy fuel was exponentially higher than the years we burned natural gas. Light oil is not as clean-burning as natural gas but emits far less sulfur, ash and other pollutants than the heavy oil. The cleanest burning fuel is natural gas and it is our fuel of choice. However, even the cleanest-burning fuel in an inefficient system is a poor use of resources. That’s where we are today.

Producing steam is an excellent way to get large volumes of latent heat through a relatively small pipe to remote locations. The downside is that producing steam requires a prodigious amount of fuel to turn a pound of water (about a pint) into steam vapor. Basically, to turn a pound of water from 32 degrees Fahrenheit steam vapor takes 1150 Btus at atmospheric pressure and even more Btus as the pressure builds. To get a sense of scale, each of the two boilers we use is rated for the ability to evaporate 13,800 pounds of water an hour using 120+ gallons per hour of oil. 16.7 million kilojoules of energy are needed per boiler per hour at a minimum.

A heat plant producing steam was an excellent choice in the last century. It let the college purchase coal fuel in bulk and store it in one location, and it avoided the need to schlep that fuel to individual boilers in each building. The fire tenders — coal fires had to be monitored 24-7 — could stay in one place.

When the campus evolved and left coal behind, it became less clear that the steam system was the best way to provide heat to the buildings. As buildings were renovated, direct steam radiators were replaced with hydronic fin tube, fan coil and air handling units which were supplied with hot water to provide the heat. From an operational standpoint, we are boiling water at the heat plant, sending steam up through thousands of feet of pipe — hundreds of valves and dozens of pressure reducing stations — to converters at the buildings which take the heat from the steam, transfer it to the water of the hydronic systems and ultimately provides the heat and hot water to the buildings. It is a long journey that is only completed when the condensate from the steam is pumped back to the plant and collected to be cycled through the boilers again. At every stage of the steam supply system, we are losing heat. A lot of energy is expended just to keep the system pressurized in the event that heat is called for. We still have the advantage of bulk fuel purchase (even natural gas can be purchased in bulk) but we are losing energy efficiency.

Efficiency is not just a measure of dollars and Btus. It is now representative of carbon emissions. If the college is going to reach the goal of carbon neutrality, we have to rethink not only what temperatures are bearable but how we move heat in the most efficient way.

Confronting the climate crisis

in Columns/Opinions/Rethinking Green by

Later this month, world leaders will gather at the United Nations for an unprecedented climate summit in hopes of drafting an international climate agreement by 2015 to address rising greenhouse gas emissions. The stakes are incredibly high. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, developed by an international body of scientists tasked with compiling research on climate change, told us that a comprehensive emissions reduction agreement by 2015 is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. Yet world leaders’ track records, which include decades of inaction despite growing scientific certainty, do not exactly presage substantive action. If we expect them to take real leadership we must create the political pressure needed to compel them to act. In an effort to apply this pressure, 250,000 people from all corners of society — teachers, pastors, scientists, union members, indigenous people and students — will be taking to the streets for the People’s Climate March on September 21, the weekend preceding the summit, to tell President Obama, the nation and the world that we need real climate action now. There will be free buses leaving from Swarthmore and other colleges in the area to bring students to this historic event.

The march’s location is particularly pertinent: less than two years ago, Hurricane Sandy — the type of storm we will see more of as the climate changes more dramatically — hit the New Jersey coast and New York City hardest, destroying homes, causing tens of billions in damage and leading to hundreds of fatalities. Sea level rise threatens to exacerbate storm surge and coastal flooding in the short term and submerge large parts of the city in the later part of the century.

The destruction New York City faces is only a fragment of the international effects of climate change and fossil fuel consumption. Climate change is devastating those already marginalized by systematic oppression most — working-class people, people of color and those living in the global south. Sea level rise is threatening the existence of many Pacific Island nations; droughts are exacerbating conflict and civil war in Sub-Saharan Africa; and around the world, communities on the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction and combustion suffer from severe public health consequences due to the world’s over-reliance on fossil fuels.

But our so-called leaders have not acted. Since being tasked with drafting a comprehensive climate agreement in 1992, the UN Conference of Parties annual meetings have continuously fallen short of their goal. Since then, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have ballooned from 356 ppm to 399 ppm, sea levels have risen nearly two inches, severe weather has worsened, the ice caps have continued to melt and scientific confidence in anthropogenic climate change has reached new heights.

At COP 19 last year, after his town was destroyed by climate-fueled Typhoon Haiyan, Naderev “Yeb” Saño, the lead Filipino negotiator at the conference, implored the delegates to “stop this [climate] madness,” and pledged to fast during the two-week conference until a meaningful agreement was in sight. Saño fasted throughout the conference in the final days; 800 civilian observers and representatives from 132 developing and island nations walked out of the conference in protest of intransigence of developed countries like the United States. Other Swarthmore students and I fasted for varying amounts of time in solidarity with Saño and those affected by climate change around the world.

COP 21, hosted next fall in Paris, will be the next — and perhaps the last — opportunity to prevent runaway climate change: any agreement signed in 2015 will not take effect until 2020. Scientists say that if the world does not begin reducing global emissions by 2020, we could be “locked in” to runaway climate change as rising temperatures melt sea ice and unleash massive amounts of methane from under the oceans and permafrost. In essence, COP 21 might be our last chance to avert climate catastrophe.

While Ban Ki-moon’s call for this unprecedented climate summit is a hopeful change of tune, in order to have any chance in succeeding, the United States must stop blocking progress. The influence of the fossil fuel industry in our democracy continues to drown out ever-growing calls for action from scientists, human rights groups and people around the world impacted by climate change and fossil fuels. If our government is to stop preventing action and instead demand a stop to climate madness, it needs to be us, the people, that apply pressure and create the political conditions in which a climate agreement is not only possible but a political necessity.

By stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry, hundreds of divestment campaigns across the world have been taking critical steps to erode their political licence and highlight the injustices of the fossil fuel economy to create the political climate in which America’s responsibility as a climate leader is embraced rather than shirked. Our political leaders have proven unwilling to take action on their own for fear of backlash from the powerful fossil fuel industry. It is our job to show that if they don’t take action, they need to fear the even greater power of people who are awake, engaged and organized. On September 21, we have a historic opportunity to show that power and to capitalize on the historic shifts brought on by grassroots organizing and the increasingly visible impacts of ever-worsening climate change.

Reserve seats on a bus to The People’s Climate March at bit.ly/swatPCM and learn more about PCM at peoplesclimate.org/march. Email sohanlo1 if you have questions.

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