Giving a gold star for all the wrong reasons

Last May, the Board of Managers put Swarthmore on the wrong side of history. They continued to invest in and legitimize the fossil fuel industry — an industry that actively profits from racial and economic injustice and whose fundamental business plan involves burning over five times more carbon than UN scientists say is “reasonably safe”.  It is incompatible with a livable future. By continuing to invest in fossil fuels, the Board is saying that this industry is consistent with our community’s values of social responsibility and leadership for the common good. They are sending the worst possible message at the worst possible moment, as the world prepares for landmark climate negotiations this fall.

This decision went against a campus mandate for action and drew criticism from groups across the globe. Last year, the divestment campaign gathered 950 student and 1200 alumni petition signatures, received an endorsement from UN Climate Chief Christiana Figueres ’79, and helped pass a faculty resolution recommending divestment (passed by a 10-1 margin). Criticism flooded in from groups across the globe, ranging from, an international climate group, to the Delco Times, the moderate county newspaper. Even prospective students took note of the decision, with one, the daughter of a prominent environmental blogger, questioning whether she will apply to Swarthmore this year.

But, one group praised the decision — the fossil fuel industry, congratulating the Board for undermining the divestment movement. Within a day of the Board’s decision, a spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), the largest oil and gas lobby, appeared in the press, “applaud[ing] Swarthmore for keeping its holdings in fossil fuels” and criticizing our movement. The IPAA represents companies like Exxon, Shell, and BP that spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year funding climate denial and lobbying against climate action.

Understanding why Exxon did this isn’t complicated. According to an analysis by the investment bank HSBC, if we are to prevent a two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures (beyond which we may face runaway climate change) governments must force fossil fuel companies to leave $20 trillion in carbon reserves unburned and ‘stranded,’ leading to a devaluation in their share prices by 40-60%. This means that our ability to avoid runaway climate change is directly at odds with the fossil fuel industry’s business model. As a result, they will do anything and everything in their power to minimize the significance of any climate regulations. For decades, they have polluted our democracy with massive donations to and lobbying of elected officials and have actively funded and spread false science. Just this week, a report revealed that Exxon has known about climate change since 1981, but continues to fund climate deniers even 30 years later in an effort to extract as many carbon reserves as possible.

This isn’t what Swarthmore stands for. Though we may not want to lend our support to fossil fuels, this endorsement from the IPAA makes it clear that the Board’s actions speak for us as an institution. No matter what other climate initiatives Swarthmore undertakes, by continuing to invest in fossil fuels, we are continuing to lend our support to a rogue industry at war with everything that Swarthmore stands for — truth, science, dialogue, and justice.

On Saturday, we delivered the Board an ‘award’ from the fossil fuel industry to highlight how the Board’s decision directly lent Swarthmore’s prestige and social capital to a rogue industry that is responsible for millions of deaths every year. Just as it is unconscionable for the Board to continue to lend our college’s support to this industry, we, as members of the college community, believe it is similarly unconscionable for us to remain silent and allow the Board to undermine our core community values as the sole voice speaking for Swarthmore, despite the powerful mandate from the Swarthmore community for divestment.

We will continue campaigning because we know the Board’s decision in May is not final. Whether it is by economic necessity or by a political and moral choice, we know that divestment is inevitable — all that remains to be seen is how long the Board will allow the fossil fuel industry to use our social capital to promote their public relations.

The campaign to divest from Apartheid South Africa was rebuffed by the Board multiple times before they acceded to student, faculty, and alumni demands, and we are confident that the Board will join the Swarthmore community on the right side of history once again. But in the meantime, lives are at stake. Since this campaign began four years ago, the fossil fuel industry has been responsible for millions of deaths. Communities around the world, predominantly communities of color, impacted by the climate crisis and the fossil fuel industry do not have another five years. As young people facing an increasingly unstable future climate, we do not have another five years for our college, the very institution preparing us for our future, to continue to support an industry that poses an existential threat to that future.


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