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Divestment an empty gesture, college seeks better solutions

9 mins read

I write on behalf of the Swarthmore College Board of Managers to reaffirm our commitment to stem climate change through a serious, community-based approach. Further, I aim to explain the board’s position regarding divestment of the college’s endowment from fossil fuel companies. Portions of this letter were shared with the community last September.

Many students, faculty, staff and alumni have worked to bring the issues of climate change to the fore. They have challenged us — appropriately — to consider the college’s obligation to address climate change. As a board, we are grateful that members of the Sustainability Committee, Ecosphere, Earthlust, Mountain Justice and more have articulated the urgency of the situation so well and have, frankly, helped many of us think differently about our responsibilities to the college, to the earth and to future generations.

First, let me state that climate change is among the most critical and urgent challenges of our time. Heat-trapping gases are transforming the world as we have known it. Weather has become more extreme. Our leading climate scientists — careful, deliberative people — agree that greenhouse gas emissions must be curtailed drastically in the next few decades. Too little is being done to stop the fossil fuel industry from disposing of dangerous greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Much more needs to be done to develop alternative energy sources.

As you may know, on the first day of classes this semester, Interim President Constance Hungerford shared a report of the College’s significant efforts to date and then challenged our community to think creatively and boldly about how the college might reach carbon neutrality sooner than 2035, and to adopt more sustainable habits and practices both on an individual and institutional level. Our community has risen to this challenge, presenting more than 160 suggestions, including smaller steps and major initiatives. Managers are devoting resources to hire experts to begin to help us prioritize some of these ideas and to develop others that may not yet have surfaced. The on-campus conversations continue, and we will be devoting time during the December Board meeting to consider our next steps, including, importantly, how we might consider how to build the new Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building to even higher sustainability standards than LEED Silver, as previously committed. We will also be co-hosting, with support from the environmental studies program, the Sustainability Committee, Earthlust and the President’s Office, a symposium on hydrofracturing. I look forward to providing an update following that meeting to summarize our conversations and progress.

Some members of our campus and alumni community advocate for the divestiture of fossil fuel company stocks from the college’s endowment portfolio. Though they and the Board share a common understanding of the problem, the Board’s decision not to divest is broad and deep. While we’ve arrived at this position from several different paths, it is our collective judgment that the cost of divestment would far outweigh any potential benefit. If we thought divestment would change the behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels, this would be a much tougher decision. We believe we have other, more effective means to achieve this objective.

As we have disclosed earlier in our Cost of Divestment Q&A, we believe that such a modification of investment policy is likely to have a negative effect on our investment returns, thus impacting our ability to support financial aid, faculty, curriculum, and student programs. By our calculation, divestment could risk a loss of approximately $10-15 million a year in endowment income. The Board is not prepared to accept the significant cuts in scholarships, faculty and curriculum offerings that a much lower endowment return would necessitate.

We understand that such a divestment campaign is a symbolic act designed to mobilize public opinion against fossil fuels and the companies whose business is to extract them from the earth. Many Board members question the efficacy of a symbolic campaign since it does not sufficiently consider, from a moral perspective, the link between personal sacrifice and making an impact on the industry’s profits. Divestment’s potential success as a moral response is limited — if not completely negated — so long as its advocates continue to turn on the lights, drive cars and purchase manufactured goods, for it is these activities that constitute the true drivers of fossil fuel companies’ economic viability — their profits. It is important that we ourselves acknowledge that our consumption of energy makes us complicit in the threat to the planet and that it is in our hands to reduce our demand for it.

Symbolic action is not our only option, and we are convinced it is far from our best option for mobilizing public opinion as well as for having real impact on the fossil fuel industry. President Obama and President of China Xi Jinping’ s signing of a joint climate commitment last week is the latest illustration that government action to control greenhouse gas emissions is an increasing priority. In every part of our country, and around the world, elected officials as well as entrepreneurs and activists are taking real steps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and to diminish the influence of fossil fuel producers.

Swarthmore is ready to add more of its muscle and its leadership voice — both legislatively and on other fronts — to the movement working against climate change. We already belong to the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium. The College last year hired its first ever Director of Sustainability, Laura Cacho. Laura’s leadership in our sustainability initiatives has already made a tremendous difference on campus and will continue to as we dive still further into the big ideas generated by community members in the coming months. This week and next, Laura will be joined by faculty, student and staff members, together with President Hungerford, to lead conversations about what kind of criteria should be applied to prioritize among the 160 proposals that range from curricular ideas to new investments in facilities. Then, early in the spring semester, outside experts will host a campus-wide “charrette” to apply the agreed-upon criteria to the proposals. Those ideas, in turn, will come before the Board in February for consideration, and input.

I am fully confident that during these next few months we will make tremendous progress in expressing our fullest commitment to stemming climate change. And as we continue to make progress together, we are keenly aware of the need for this to remain a community effort so that we can benefit from our collective intelligence and moral commitment to find effective ways to bring about change for this generation and all that follow.

Gil Kemp ’72 is Chair of the college’s Board of Managers.

3 Comments

  1. Save taxpayer’s money AND defund climate change and environmental destruction by ending the enormous subsidies and tax breaks for animal agriculture!

    With 60+ BILLION food animals on the planet our best chance to mitigate climate change is to severely reduce consumption of animal foods. More than 1/3 of human induced warming is attributable to animal agriculture. Methane is 24 times more potent than CO2 but takes only 7 years to cycle out of the atmosphere. CO2 takes around 100 years to come out. Human pursuit of animal protein is the leading cause of methane release and a primary cause of CO2 concentrating in the atmosphere. Check the facts and act!

    “As environmental science has advanced, it has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future: deforestation, erosion, fresh water scarcity, air and water pollution, climate change, biodiversity loss, social injustice, the destabilization of communities, and the spread of disease.” Worldwatch Institute, “Is Meat Sustainable?”

    “If every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetables and grains… the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.” Environmental Defense Fund

    “A 1% reduction in world-wide meat intake has the same benefit as a three trillion-dollar investment in solar energy.” ~ Chris Mentzel, CEO of Clean Energy

  2. More avoidance of Swarthmore’s duty to its students and the public.

    Chair Kemp states with confidence that divestment wouldn’t change the behavior of companies. Yet just today NRG specifically references the divestment movement as a motivation for trying to decarbonize its business: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/21/business/energy-environment/nrg-sets-goals-to-cut-carbon-emissions.html

    The argument that divestment doesn’t have moral power because we use fossil fuels unavoidably is laughable. An obvious distinction between investment and consumption is choice. Being forced to use something you don’t want to use is not hypocrisy, and I’m surprised that Chair Kemp would make such a poor argument.

    Swarthmore is going to explore 160 proposals to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, all while investing in them? That seems more hypocritical than divesting by a long shot.

    Yesterday at Harvard we sued our board for its investments in fossil fuels. Because no matter how much contorted logic Chair Kemp or others provide, one thing remains true: when you invest in a product that threatens people’s futures, kills their friends and families, and reduces the opportunities they have in their lives, then it just really pisses them off.

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