The college must recommit to environmental responsibility

In March of 1854, Ralph Waldo Emerson eloquently described the discomfort of a literary man engaging with political questions: “I do not often speak to public questions;— they are odious and hurtful, and it seems like meddling or leaving your work.” Yet Emerson went on to attack the Fugitive Slave Act and all compromises with slavery, grappling with the prime political question of his day, for one very good reason: “My own habitual view is to the well-being of students or scholars. And it is only when the public event affects them, that it very seriously touches me.” In a similar spirit, we as a department would like to respond herein to President Hungerford’s message from September 1, inviting the community to “dream big, but concretely.”

Directly and indirectly, climate change touches the well-being of our current students and will increasingly affect the lives of future Swarthmore students. As members of the faculty of Swarthmore College, we too are touched: in defense of our present and future students, we call for a more focused and active transition away from fossil fuel dependence and from the extreme extraction methods currently poisoning our air and water.

The college has been engaged for several years now in conversations over investment choices governing the college endowment. Mountain Justice led the nation in first calling for a college to divest from fossil fuel companies — specifically a “sordid sixteen” of United States based companies profiting from extraction of fossil fuels. For its part, the Board of Managers has opposed divestment, arguing that the College’s current response to climate change — its Climate Action Plan, membership in the Investor Network for Climate Risk and Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium, as well as curricular programming in Environmental Studies — would be better extended through collaborative policy and public awareness initiatives than through a “symbolic act” the Managers see as ineffective.

The landscape around us is changing rapidly. As other institutions of higher learning begin divesting, substantially or strategically, from fossil fuels, we may learn from their strategies and formulations. Pitzer College trustee and investment chair Donald P. Gould lists six objections to divestment that Pitzer’s working group considered and eventually countered; several of these are familiar themes in Swarthmore’s conversations on this topic. Gould addresses, for instance, the issue of commingled (e.g., mutual) funds, noting that “a ranking of direct and commingled assets by carbon intensity quickly reveals the low-hanging fruit. The institution may well discover that substantial, if not complete, divestment can be achieved with minimal portfolio disruption.”

Gould also pointed to new developments such as an index fund launched by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Blackrock and FTSE Group: an equity global index series that will exclude companies linked to exploration, ownership or extraction of carbon-based fossil fuel reserves. Christiana Figueres ’79, Executive Secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change responded to the launch of this fund by noting that “institutions across the world are rightfully reconsidering investments that directly threaten our climate and thus our economies… The divestment index provides these institutions with yet another potentially powerful tool to align their investments with their missions.”

Stanford University, meanwhile, has invoked its “Statement on Investment Responsibility,” a clause stating that when trustees conclude that “corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury,” they take this factor into account in their investment decisions. As of May 2014, Stanford University will no longer invest directly in publicly traded companies whose principal business is the mining of coal for use in energy generation. Finally, in the spring of 2014, over one hundred Harvard faculty and university officers signed a letter urging divestment. Among other sources, they cite World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, Harvard Medical School graduate, and former professor and chairman of HMS’s Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, who includes divestment as a legitimate tactic: “The good news is that there is action we all can take… we can divest and tax that which we don’t want, the carbon that threatens development gains over the last 20 years.” He goes on to urge: “Be the first mover. Use smart due diligence. Rethink what fiduciary responsibility means in this changing world.” When the president of the World Bank urges divestment from fossil fuels, surely we are in a topsy-turvy world.

This past spring, faculty discussions of the endowment, sparked by Peter Collings’s open letter to the community, raised broader questions about the college’s investment policies and urged greater creativity in thinking about ways the college endowment might be deployed. To Collings’s point about “intergenerational equity” being biased dramatically in favor of future faculty and students against current faculty and students, we would add a counterpoint: since burning fossil fuels privileges the present generation at the expense of the future, investing for purposes of intergenerational equity in fossil fuel companies seems oxymoronic at best.

We believe the community as a whole must engage these issues together. We urge the administration and the Committee on Faculty Procedures to schedule as soon as possible a number of faculty lunch meetings on the questions of investment policies and climate change. We envision a first lunch in which faculty might discuss in small groups the current state of the endowment, along with investment policies and options. A second lunch might offer the chance to discuss current approaches to transitioning away from fossil fuel dependence. Each of these two lunches would be preceded by short written summaries of relevant information — perhaps two or three short separate statements, to meet the needs of different stakeholders. Each lunch would conclude by listing further questions the faculty wanted answered and/or suggestions for moving the conversation further. A third lunch might offer a chance to discuss the questions, information or suggestions generated by the first two lunches.

We also request that the administration create a broader, community-based forum that would allow students, staff and faculty to talk together about challenges to our community posed by climate change along with various options for responding to those challenges.

Beyond the issue of divestment, we agree with the Board of Managers that “the time is right to pursue legislative change aggressively.” The impact of California emissions legislation, recent action by the EPA, and Congressman Chris van Hollen’s introduction of legislation to create a carbon dividend all constitute hopeful signs of meaningful political action on climate change. Here at Swarthmore, we urge the creation of an ad-hoc committee, including board members, faculty, staff and students, that will be charged with identifying, supporting and perhaps creating legislative opportunities to address climate change effectively and aggressively. This committee should report frequently to the college community on its actions, noting in particular ways the community as a whole can support this crucial work.

In his speech on the Fugitive Slave Act, Emerson complained that when he raised the issue of slavery with political and social leaders in Massachusetts, “they stood stiffly on conservatism… only to moderate the velocity with which the car was running down the precipice. In short, their theory was despair; the Whig wisdom was only reprieve, a waiting to be last devoured.” In contrast, let our Quaker wisdom be forward-looking, at once deeply grounded and nimble. As a leader in liberal arts education, we owe it to ourselves as well as our students to find intelligent and creative paths through this current crisis, and to provide leadership to others searching for new alternatives.


The Department of English Literature

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