Rebecca Chopp was the first college president to ever respond to a fossil fuel divestment campaign. Before the movement exploded into more than 500 campaigns worldwide, before Desmond Tutu, Jon Huntsman and many others endorsed the international movement, President Chopp set the tone for how administrators would respond to students demanding fossil fuel divestment.
She crafted her response shrewdly, agreeing that climate change gravely threatened civilization but implying that divestment would simply not be effective. Admittedly, in 2012, divestment had only a moral argument — albeit a powerful one: if it’s wrong to wreck to planet and wrong to poison communities, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage and poisoning. But ethics aside, its political efficacy was indeed debatable: divestment works only when it galvanizes broader shifts in the political and social climate — and no one, not even Swarthmore Mountain Justice, thought this one campus campaign could alone spark such movement. Furthermore, fossil-free funds were still unconventional, casting doubt on the economic viability of divestment.
Two years later, this uncertainty has all but disappeared. By directly targeting the fossil fuel industry, divestment has turned the tables and put the industry on the defensive for the first time in decades. The movement has exemplified how divestment goes beyond just moving investments to delegitimize an unjust status quo and lay the groundwork for previously unwinnable social change. And industry has taken notice. The Alberta Oil Magazine warned in a December 2013 article that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” Fossil fuel divestment has achieved this as all movements do: by steadily shifting institutions, civil society, and, ultimately, political leaders to embrace a vision for a better tomorrow — a society free of planet-threatening, community-poisoning fossil fuels.
The victories have been rapid and increasingly impactful. In the final semester of Chopp’s presidency, the movement escalated from minor wins into historic shifts. Stanford University, Pitzer College and the University of Dayton divested a combined $19.5 billion. Seventeen philanthropic foundations representing $1.8 billion decided that they did not want their investments to “contribute to fueling climate change.” The national meetings of the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association, alongside the World Council of Churches, determined that continued investments in fossil fuel destruction contradicted their moral values. World leaders including former anti-apartheid leader Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President of the World Bank Jim Yong Kim, and UN climate chief Christiana Figueres ’79 issued endorsements of divestment. Together, these world leaders are illuminating the destruction wrought by fossil fuels and calling for a better future free of fossil fuels.
Divestment’s momentum has begun to catalyze systematic change. BlackRock, the world’s largest asset management company, created a permanent fossil-free portfolio, placing divestment solidly within the mainstream of finance and opening the floodgates to fossil free investing. The question, “will divestment have any socio-political impact?” is obsolete — the question now is how fast and deep this movement can change climate policy and politics.
And yet, President Chopp — perhaps because she was on her way out — never changed her tune. In a May 16 New York Times article (aptly titled “A Clash of Investments and Ideals at Swarthmore”) her reasoning remained the same: she claimed that divestment “would have no measurable effect on halting climate change.” Had President Chopp stayed at Swarthmore longer, she may have chosen to follow the path of Pitzer’s Investment Committee Chair, Donald Gould. Once a strident opponent of divestment, Gould — convinced by student organizers — began to see the historic shifts happening outside his campus and realized the unique opportunity Pitzer had to become a leader in sustainability and social justice. After Pitzer announced 100% divestment, Gould explained in the Chronicle of Higher Education that “divestment changes the public discourse on our collective energy future” with nearly no risk to endowment returns. Gould had done his research: fossil-free funds are performing at or above the market average, while fossil fuels are at a risk of serious devaluation if the world implements the climate legislation we need (to avoid catastrophic climate impacts, 60 to 80 percent of current reserves cannot be extracted).
Chopp cannot be faulted for her initial hesitation back in 2012. But as new administrators take the helm at Swarthmore, they must not simply respond to a single campus campaign — they must respond to an international movement, a diverse coalition of civic leaders, and — given the BlackRock announcement — an investment environment that leaves vanishingly little excuse for not choosing a fossil-free fund. The Donald Gould of 2014, not the President Chopp of 2012, should be the model for future administrators.
Guido Girgenti is a junior and a member of Swarthmore Mountain Justice.