Op-Ed: Tri-College Divestment Campaigns: Growing Stronger Together

honors rachel head

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Letter submitted by Ian Oxenham (Divest Haverford), Prianka Ball (Bryn Mawr Environmental Justice Leauge), and Stephen O’Hanlon ’17 (Swarthmore Mountain Justice)

Last fall the Boards of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore Colleges released open letters stating their decision not to divest our endowments from fossil fuels. As our Boards have rejected fossil fuel divestment, we must also reject their implicit decision to instead divest from us, our educations, and our futures.  Numerous analyses from major banks like HSBC and Citibank as well as rating agencies like Standard & Poors have made it clear that our Colleges’ investments in the fossil fuel industry will only remain financially viable in a world that fails to address climate change.  If we do take the action necessary to prevent potentially catastrophic climate change, HSBC analysts calculate that fossil fuel corporations are likely to lose as much as 40-60% of their value.  Yet despite this, our Boards have now consciously chosen to keep what is likely millions of dollars of our endowments invested in the fossil fuel industry. In essence, our colleges’ investments are betting against future climate action, thereby the future of our and future generations.  And because of our institutions’ vested, multi-million dollar interest in the status quo, we do not find their professed desire to find other ways of addressing climate change and the ravages of fossil fuel extraction credible.

We also know that actions that look to compromise, such as the shareholder activism our Boards advocate, will not affect the timely change we need.  In response to shareholder activist pressure for change in its practices, the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil released a report in which it explicitly admitted the need to address climate change but flatly stated it had no intention of changing any of its business practices in the slightest way.  And – as if to drive home the depths of the industry’s disregard for the health and sustainability of future generations – the report was released on the same day that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the second part of its own Fifth Assessment Report, which called more urgently than ever before for action to stem the effects of climate change.  Our Boards point to successful examples of shareholder activism, such as when Swarthmore partnered with other schools to successfully convince Boeing to stop its discriminatory hiring practices.  However, these examples are not comparable to the shareholder activism our boards advocate to pressure the fossil fuel industry.  In order to prevent catastrophic climate change, the world needs to rapidly transition away from fossil fuel consumption.  Unlike with Boeing, we are not asking the fossil fuel industry to simply enact fairer hiring practices.  Rather, the climate science demands that we drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions within the next decade in order to prevent disastrous climate change.  Action on this scale threatens the very core business model of the fossil fuel industry in a way that hiring practices simply do not, rendering shareholder activism ineffectual at prompting the type of change we need.

Yet this is not just about our futures; for many communities across the world, climate change and the ravages of the fossil fuel supply chain are an already-present reality.  In rejecting divestment, our Boards have chosen to continue standing by as the fossil fuel industry poisons water, exacerbates economic and racial injustices, and carries out wholesale environmental destruction at every step from extraction to combustion.  Within just the past few months, a fracking well exploded in Southwest Pennsylvania, an underground pipe spewed millions of gallons of coal ash into the Dan River, and chemicals used to process coal contaminated the water of 300,000 West Virginians.  In March, record droughts forced the California Department of Water Resources to shut off state water flows to over 750,000 people.  Meanwhile, droughts are exacerbating already-strained food and water supplies amidst violent conflict in Syria. These disasters only highlight the everyday experiences of those living on the frontlines of ecological and economic destruction, who live without access to clean water, suffer from asthma due to refineries in their neighborhoods, and confront an increasingly extreme and disastrous climate.

The legacy of the decades-long apartheid divestment movement taught us that an initial rejection means anything but the end of a campaign.  Like divestment from apartheid, the fossil fuel divestment movement is a student-led movement challenging entrenched injustices and demanding real solutions. While we are prepared to organize for as long as it takes to win, we know that we do not have decades to do so.  Luckily, fossil fuel divestment has proven to be the fastest growing youth climate movement in history, with nearly 600 active campaigns across the globe.  Two weeks ago, Pitzer College pledged to divest its $125 million endowment from fossil fuels by the end of 2014, while a coalition of over a hundred Harvard faculty released a public statement demanding that their university divest.  And just last week, Nobel Peace Prize winner and South African anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for a boycott of the fossil fuel industry comparable to that which lead to the demise of South African apartheid, publicly endorsing fossil fuel divestment.

Our movement is gaining momentum, and you can count on us not going away anytime soon.  This past Tuesday marked the beginning of the National Fortnight of Action, #BeyondEarthDay, where campus divestment campaigns from around the country are taking coordinated action and escalating together.  Students from across the Tri-Co are collaborating and building connections between our campaigns to take bolder action on our respective campuses both now and in the future.  We know that we will win.  We also know that given the stakes for our own futures, the futures of our fellow students, and the rest of the world, we cannot afford to give up because it’s convenient to maintain business as usual.  As Archbishop Tutu wrote, “To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”  We call on the Boards of Swarthmore, Haverford, and Bryn Mawr to divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in just and sustainable futures for all of its students.


  1. “divest from us, our educations, and our futures.” “In rejecting divestment, our Boards have chosen to continue standing by as the fossil fuel industry … exacerbates racial injustices.”

    LOL. Are the writers actually serious in this grandstanding? This reads like a green progressive’s personal diary, not like an article to persuade anyone. In this way, the article seems masturbatorial, not one productive in facilitating dialogue.

    Also — advice from the real world — no one gives a sh*t what some analysts at HSBC (ummm… also the guys who did money laundering for terrorists lol) or Citi have to say about (climate change) anything.

    OVER 100 HARVARD FACULTY??? FOR REALZ? yeah except there are 2400 Harvard faculty, so really just 2.4% signed on.

  2. I think you’re right. Betting on fossil fuels, aside from the moral issue, is stupid in the long run. The climate is changing faster and faster for the worse, anybody who has followed the science knows this, there are positive feedback loops that will accelerate extreme, disastrous events. In the wake of these, there will be more demand and action on climate, therefore less demand for fossil fuel shares. It’s pretty simple actually. Keep up the good work, you’re doing the right thing and don’t give up!

  3. Has any of the previous criticism about costs and endangering financial aid been addressed, or is this more of the same Mountain Justice as last time?

  4. Yawn. Same shit, different day. I hate that I’m about to do this, but I am so sick of the pseudo-intellectual arguments that you provide that I actually am going to give y’all some advice.

    1) If ~40-60% of oil companies’ market caps are at risk, why wouldn’t you just go in with that as a pitch? “Hey, based on all this research we compiled, we think oil prices are going to fall and crude producers will suffer. We believe the investment committee should short crude.” Boom. There you go. You changed the dialogue from “we want to divest from oil companies” to “we have this great investment idea to fund the future development of super star students.” See what I did there? Now, we are talking about strengthening the future of Swarthmore’s endowment through ACTIONABLE IDEAS. The argument of taking away exposure to protect downside is less convincing, especially when you are doing it on an uncertain basis. Endowments don’t typically make speculative investments, and a pitch involving “climate change” is largely speculative. You might be right about its existence, but you can’t tell me the time frame. Your crystal ball sucks as much as mine. I can be right 100% of the time as an investor, but if I’m not proven right for 20 years then I still fucked up.

    2) Do your own research. Sell side research is a joke. It shouldn’t be too hard to determine (1) crude production in the United States is increasing, (2) demand is decreasing globally, and (3) there are no release valves for US production unless the government approves export credits. There is precedent for (3), but don’t count on it in the short and medium term with the way congress acts these days. When you add up those three things, I think it is actually a pretty good pitch for falling oil prices and against the oil companies.

    At the end of the day, money talks and bullshit walks. For now, the divestment campaign is insanity. You keep saying the same thing and no one cares because currently your facts are hardly tangible. Change the dialogue or the positioning of the discussion, otherwise you just look like a bunch of quacks.

  5. Today’s NY Times (5/17) published a medium long article about this divestment compaign, and cited the WSJ opinion piece My Top Notch Illiberal Education. Thanks to the Times probably a large number (1,000s) will read that Top Notch op ed. As your school is looking like a hot bed of idiocy run amok — where the hapless helpless administrators are powerless against thuggish tactics at gatherings — I’m sure you will have accomplished something tangible, if not what your objective was. And let’s hear it from the students who will not get scholarships if divestment occurs!

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