Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Donald Trump’s election last month was a devastating blow to movements for social justice, but victories over the past week have given us hope. They’ve shown that when we come together and organize, we can achieve meaningful change. Last Friday, after a campus-wide walkout, tireless negotiation and planning by students and faculty, and 2000 petition signatures from students, alumni, staff, and faculty, the Board committed wholeheartedly to becoming a Sanctuary Campus. They cited Swarthmore’s “proud history of commitment to social justice, civil liberties, diversity, and the protection and inclusion of groups subjected to acts that threaten their freedom and safety.”
The Sanctuary Campus decision was a huge victory, and a crucial one, but we need to keep up the fight to ensure that our institution does everything possible to protect both our campus community and the broader world from the devastating policies of a Trump administration and a Republican Congress.
Social justice and environmental justice are inseparable; for the board to commit to the “protection of groups subjected to acts that threaten their freedom and safety” includes not just becoming a Sanctuary Campus, but standing with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and every other community affected by rapidly changing weather patterns, rising sea levels, and environmental racism.
The Swarthmore community has shown a clear understanding of this; over 2300 students, faculty, and alumni have called for divestment from fossil fuels. The Board needs to lead with us and take a stand. The Board has said that they do not want to divest from fossil fuels because they believe the endowment should remain politically neutral and not be used to pursue “social objectives.” In the era of Trump, however, neutrality is no longer an option. As the fossil fuel industry actively partners with the Trump administration and threatens millions of people, the board’s neutrality is a tacit endorsement of these policies.
The past few weeks have shown us exactly how dangerous Trump’s administration will be for our communities and our planet. From Trump’s blatant climate denialism to his threats to re-authorize the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Trump threatens to undermine essential climate action in a time when it needs to accelerate. His actions will threaten literally millions of people around the world, particularly those living in low-income communities, communities of color, and throughout the Global South that hold little responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. He and Congressional Republicans will likely move forward with bills to cut Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) funding by one-third, and to block all regulations on coal pollution, oil spills, and pesticide spraying. Trump’s administration will undermine Obama’s Clean Power Plan, likely by ruling that greenhouse gasses do not fall under the regulations of the Clean Air Act. He has already appointed lifelong climate denier and fossil fuel industry spokesperson Myron Ebell to the head of the EPA. Perhaps most terrifying is the fact that the US will certainly pull out of the Paris Climate Accords, which could undermine the world’s last attempt at a global strategy to prevent runaway climate change.
It is clear that we cannot sit back and wait for the federal government to take action on climate or hope that Trump and Republicans do not take too drastic of action. If we do, the consequences will be disastrous and will impact marginalized communities across the globe. We need to organize and resist these policies, along with the GOP’s other policies, at every level. In this context, it is more important than ever that we take action as part of a broad, powerful movement to stand up against Trump’s agenda of climate denialism and hate. This means that we must join in with movements taking action in the streets, as well as organize here to ensure our institution is taking stands for social justice.
Like with the #SanctuaryCampus movement, fossil fuel divestment gives us an opportunity to take leadership as part of a global movement that has successfully entered the mainstream and is changing the way that banks, politicians, and businesses think about climate. As a Trump-led federal government scales back climate action, this work of changing broader society is more important than ever. An Oxford University study on the fossil fuel divestment movement concluded 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.” The movement has been able to shift the thinking of the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, which now offers fossil-free investment options, and the Rockefeller Brother Fund, which recently divested its endowment built off oil fortunes. NRG, the nation’s largest publicly traded independent power producer, just committed to reducing 90 percent of emissions by 2050, citing the pressure created by the fossil fuel divestment movement.
The clearest evidence of the movement’s success comes from the fossil fuel industry itself. The Minerals Council of Australia, a coal industry group, is 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.” The Alberta Oil Magazine was more blunt, warning that “energy executives ignore [divestment] at their own peril.” The Independent Petroleum Association of America has funded studies trying to convince administrators that divestment would hurt endowments by examining monetary gains of investing in fossil fuels over a 50-year time frame, ignoring the evidence showing that over the last 10 years, divesting from fossil fuels could have avoided substantial financial losses.
As the school where the divestment movement began, Swarthmore has an exceptional opportunity and a deep responsibility to show leadership in this moment. We must continue the initiatives to make the college more environmentally sustainable, but especially after the elections, we need to also engage in a broader fight to delegitimize the fossil fuel industry and make it unconscionable for politicians, schools, businesses, and other institutions to associate with these companies. The fossil fuel industry profits off of racial and economic injustice, and Donald Trump’s policies will only make it easier for them to continue prioritizing profit over health, dignity, and human rights. By divesting, we can send a powerful message that, as an institution committed to social justice and leadership for the common good: the climate denialism and racism promoted by Donald Trump and the fossil fuel industry have no place in our institution and our endowment. We know full divestment can’t happen overnight, but the least the Board can do in this moment is to take a first step to a fossil free endowment and ask our managers that already offer fossil free investment options to switch our funds to those accounts. Even this, would send an important signal of hope and resistance in this dark moment.
If we are to overcome Trump’s devastating policies over the coming years, our generation will need to take leadership in historic mass movements for social justice. We are coming of age during a one-of-a-kind moment in history and we have incredible opportunities and responsibilities to act. We, and Mountain Justice as an organization, are deeply committed to this broad struggle for justice and dignity.
Featured image courtesy of Kyra Moed ’20/The Daily Gazette.