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Mountain Justice will maintain pressure until Board commits

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Last Thursday, 43 students and alumni began the largest ever sit-in for fossil fuel divestment, asking Chris Niemczewski and Board Chair Gil Kemp to reopen a productive dialogue on how we can end our investments in the fossil fuel industry. Our sit-in has already won a major victory: just hours after we began, Interim President Constance Hungerford emailed the campus announcing that fossil fuel divestment is on the agenda for the May Board meeting. This comes just months after Board members said the conversation on divestment was closed. However, we need to make sure this meeting is productive — that’s why we are asking Niemczewski and Kemp to meet with us in the coming weeks to commit to an open process of developing a plan for divestment. We know that divestment can’t happen overnight, but the urgency of this crisis requires us to gradually and deliberately end our investments in the fossil fuel industry that’s basic business model is incompatible with a just and stable future. Mountain Justice is prepared to keep up the pressure until the Board commits to beginning that process.

As students at an elite institution with Quaker heritage, we have a responsibility to do nothing less. Our campaign and now our sit-in have put Swarthmore into the international spotlight and international climate leaders are taking notice of Kemp and Niemczewski’s continued intransigence. On the weekend we got some big news from one of the world’s leading climate activists and 350.org founder, Bill McKibben. Today at 4:30 p.m., McKibben will join the sit-in for a major speaking event where he will talk about the role of the divestment movement and student escalation in the international climate movement. Then, on Monday, the UN Climate Chief and Swarthmore alumna Christiana Figueres ’79 published an open letter endorsing our sit-in and calling on Kemp and Niemczewski to divest. We might just be a small college in Pennsylvania, but we have a tremendous opportunity to change the course of history. We’re humbled that McKibben is joining us and that Figueres has endorsed our sit-in, and we are confident that the pressure from this major rally will push the Board to join us in building the path towards a just and sustainable future. Figueres’s full letter to Gil Kemp and Chris Niemczewski is below.

Dear students,

Dear Mr. Kemp,

Dear Mr. Niemczewski,

I write as a proud alumnus of Swarthmore College, a college which imbued me with many of the values and principles with which I today exercise my responsibility at the helm of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

It is with both optimism and reflection that I learn of the sit-in on the Swarthmore campus. The passion and commitment of students always renews my optimism. The complexity of the decisions faced by the Board of Trustees is one that calls for thoughtful exercise of responsibility.

Science has left no doubt that global climate change is due to the escalated human use of fossil fuels over the past 150 years. In order to avert the worst effects — which will be unfairly borne by the most vulnerable and by future generations — humanity must, over the next few decades, make an unprecedented shift in global investment from high to low-carbon patterns of development. This transition is already underway. But science has also left no doubt that this transition needs to be massively accelerated. Simply put, we are running out of time to do the right thing.When students, faith leaders and citizens all around the world call for a shift in investments from high to low-carbon they are voicing the moral imperative to align financial decisions with our highest sense of accountability, both across segments of society as well as across generations. As a mother and a concerned global citizen I align myself with that clarion call and I know that no reader of this letter would distance themselves from this charge. Yet this cannot be the only consideration when it comes to investment decisions.

I am sure that the members of the Board of Managers, in exercising their responsibility to protect the college endowment, are acting according to their highest understanding of fiduciary duty, and I thank them for that. With this letter I would however like to point out that the risk return analysis of fossil fuel investments has shifted in the past five years, and is accelerating. In effect, the burden of proof has been reversed — so that those who do not take these material factors into account face potential impairments to their asset values.

When financial institutions, investors and asset owners announce that they are starting a process of decarbonizing their portfolios, they are responding to the increasingly evident economic imperative of sound long term investment. The latest academic evidence and market analysis shows us that incorporating sustainability and climate factors into investment decisions adds financial value.

Forecasts of the deployment of renewables have consistently been broken as costs fall faster than expected. Likewise, coal markets both in the USA and in China have been contracting faster than expected, severely impacting share valuations. This materiality will accentuate in the years ahead as investors recognize that unabated coal has no place in the future energy mix, and the social and environmental impact of other fossil fuels is increasingly regulated and priced, nationally and internationally.

Regulation and incentives will have to be at the heart of the energy transformation. The number of cities, states and countries which are regulating and/or putting a price on greenhouse gas emissions is on a steady rise. Under the UNFCCC all governments of the world are currently constructing a universal framework that will provide an even stronger directional signal to capital markets.

The pathway that is followed by large scale investments over the next five to ten years is critical. That is why I am in constant dialogue with institutional investors and shareholders of fossil fuel companies and with fossil fuel companies themselves, in particular those that want to be part of the solution through an orderly transition of the impressive technical and financial resources they command.

This transition is one which we should all support and encourage, as the speed and scale of it will largely determine our success in addressing climate change in a timely manner.

Small scale investments also have a role to play. The thought that one institution’s small investment level is inconsequential to change is analogous to the dangerous sentiment that in the context of a democratic system one vote is irrelevant because it does not constitute the majority. Or, in the context of an academic institution, it is analogous to the unacceptable belief that the education of one student is unimportant because a single person does not effect change. Using the power of our capital, be it small or large, we can drive market innovation to promote climate change solutions in a planned and sensible manner.

All investment is about foresight. Historically, our college has benefitted from an investment strategy based on active decision-making matched by an engaged stewardship of our holdings. Today those approaches can also be deployed in the already unavoidable transition toward a low-carbon economy. It is financially prudent to be on the forefront of this transition. While the investment shift is not easy and cannot be done abruptly or irresponsibly, there are several well reputed climate and clean energy indexes now available as guides for the transition.

As Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention on Climate Change, I see that history is calling all of us to smoothly usher in the next phase of global economic development. Swarthmore cannot determine the pathway of global investments, but it can protect its endowment and play its part in history.

Yours sincerely,

Christiana Figueres ’79

Join students, faculty, alumni, and community members this evening at 4:30 p.m. in Upper Tarble for what could be the largest climate event in Swarthmore’s history. A rally will follow a short talk by McKibben on the role of the divestment movement and student escalation in the international climate movement.Visit swatmj.org/bill for more information.

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