Could this be my final divestment column?

On April 17, the faculty overwhelmingly passed a formal resolution in support of a proposal to divest Swarthmore’s separately-managed funds and reinvest in sustainable solutions to the climate crisis. This resolution capped an historic four weeks for the divestment movement here at Swarthmore and internationally. Just the previous day, alumni had delivered 1083 petitions for divestment, along with 360 pledges from alumni to withhold their donations until the Board commits to divestment. We received endorsements from prominent Swarthmore alumni including Christiana Figueres ’79 (the UN Climate Chief) and Dean Baker ’80 (the co-founder of the Center for Economic Policy Research). Our action began a national wave of escalation and series of major victories around the world. In just the last month, Syracuse University, the Guardian Media Group, SOAS University of London, and even Prince Charles all committed to move to fossil fuel free investment.

As the movement has continued to make significant strides, Swarthmore College — the birthplace of the movement — has remained behind the curve, putting at risk our reputation as an institution committed to leadership for the common good and the continued financial health of our endowment. Meanwhile, communities around the world are facing the increasingly deadly impacts of climate change, and the earth’s climate is nearing a ‘tipping point.’ If we do not peak global emissions within the next 5-10 years, we may set off an irreversible climate catastrophe. Given this reality, we have a responsibility as an institution to be asking ourselves: how can we maximally leverage our political, social, and economic power to change this political dynamic at the same time that we are continuing on-campus emissions reductions?

While the Board touts Swarthmore’s construction of more sustainable buildings and movement toward carbon neutrality, the urgency of the climate crisis demands we take an all-of-the-above approach. While we are taking steps on campus to be more sustainable, it makes no sense for us to be undermining these decisions by legitimizing through our investments an industry that lobbies against renewable energy and prevents climate action.

The Board consistently notes that the purpose of the endowment is to ensure the College can pursue its mission over the long-term and continue to educate thousands of students. The fossil fuel industry, whose business plan would lock-in warming of greater than 2 degrees Celsius within the next 30 years, fundamentally undermines the purpose of the endowment and the mission of the College. This weekend, the Board will be considering our proposal and that of the faculty, giving us the chance to put Swarthmore on the right side of history.

For decades, the climate movement has tried (and failed) to lobby Congress to take meaningful action on the climate. Meanwhile, in 2013, one industry-backed group, ALEC, pushed 70 state-level bills to hinder the development of renewable energy. Even during the non-election year of 2013, the industry spent $156 million on direct lobbying efforts alone (not including research or campaign contributions). The fact is that we can’t outspend or outlobby the fossil fuel industry. They have the money, the lobbyists, and the infrastructure, but they do not have a monopoly on legitimacy. The most important social movements of the past century — civil rights, women’s suffrage, environmentalism — did not transform society by bankrupting or out-lobbying the segregationists, the patriarchs, and the industry barons. They won because they delegitimized an unjust status quo, shifted an entire political culture, and opened the door to previously unwinnable change.

The divestment movement that began right here has grown into the most powerful climate campaign ever.  An Oxford University study, “Stranded Assets,” found that “the outcome of this stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has triggered, poses a far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain.” Stigmatized firms “suffer from a bad image that scares away suppliers, subcontractors, potential employees, and customers,” leading to the “cancellation of multibillion-dollar contracts or mergers/acquisitions.”

And the fossil fuel industry is taking notice. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is even attempting to render divestment illegal, claiming that it unfairly burdens them because “stigmatization [from divestment] makes it difficult for an industry to engage with its customers, attract employees, and more importantly, access capital for investment purposes.” In its annual SEC filing, Peabody Coal, the world’s largest private sector coal company, listed the fossil fuel divestment as a significant risk to their profitability in the coming year. The report warned that fossil fuel divestment “may adversely affect the demand for and price of securities issued by us, and impact our access to the capital and financial markets.” NRG, the largest publicly-traded power producer in the country, built a leading electricity business from coal and other conventional power plants. The company cited stigmatization due to divestment as a reason to reduce its carbon emissions by 90 percent by 2050.

As a prestigious liberal arts college and a campus where the entire movement began, a divestment commitment from Swarthmore would be a major victory in the fight for climate justice. If conducted in an orderly and responsible manner, divestment is either cost-neutral or, according to the Board’s own expert, Gregory Kats, would likely have a small positive effect on returns.

While the faculty’s proposal differs from Mountain Justice’s, either would be an historic step for Swarthmore College and for the international fight against climate change. Given this, the question we expect the Board to discuss this weekend is not whether to divest, but how broad and how fast of a divestment commitment to make.

If, for some reason, the Board refuses to respond to the mandate from students, faculty, and alumni for action this weekend, it would not just be a lost opportunity to show Swarthmore’s leadership on climate change and issues of social justice, but it would be a step backwards in the international struggle for climate justice. As the birthplace of the fossil fuel divestment movement, and as an elite liberal arts college with a $1.9 billion endowment, Swarthmore is in the international spotlight. Having garnered international press and sparked a wave of national escalation and movement victories, our sit-in had only focused this spotlight more on Swarthmore. If  the Board chooses to reject the faculty divestment resolution they will lend Swarthmore’s extensive social and political capital to the fossil fuel industry and signal to the world that the fossil fuel industry’s plan to burn five times as much carbon as the UN says is ‘reasonably safe’ is compatible with our institutional values of civic leadership and social justice. As world leaders prepare to negotiate a landmark climate agreement in the lead-up to the UN Climate Conference in Paris this fall, this is the wrong message to send at the worst possible time.

The coming months are critical for the future livability of this planet. Chris Niemczewski and the Board of Managers have a choice: to make history or be vilified with it. To invest in a rogue industry or join us in declaring the end to the fossil fuel era. To stand with us as our generation demands a stable future, or to side with an industry attempting to extract every last bit of profit from the earth at the expense of those already most marginalized. Given the Board’s professed commitment to action on climate and our College community, we hope to work with them to put Swarthmore on the right side of history. However, if the Board chooses to continue lending our College’s legitimacy to the fossil fuel industry, we will be back, stronger, louder, and more powerful than before come September. Divestment is too important an issue to abandon and the repercussions of staying invested in fossil fuels are too dire to stop fighting.

Whether it is the faculty proposal or ours that the Board approves, here’s to hoping this can be the conclusion of The Orange Square.

 

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