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.
On Monday, January 23rd, Swarthmore students will be joining students at over 50 universities across the country walking out of their classes to demand that their institutions divest from the fossil fuel industry and condemn the deadly climate denialism of Donald Trump, Rex Tillerson, and the Climate Denial Cabinet.
I assume that Swarthmore College wants to preserve its existence and has as a central concern the wellbeing of its students both on campus and as they head out into the world. I also assume that Swarthmore wants to continue and strengthen the social justice mission that it has supported since its founding as a co-educational institution. Finally, I assume that the financial strength of the college endowment is of importance to its administration and Board of Managers.
If these assumptions are valid, then the college, through its Board, should divest the endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Failure to do so undermines the very meaning of Swarthmore and threatens its strength as a leading educational institution. The effects of failure to lead are why students, faculty and staff, and alumni should support the Day of Action on January 23.
The climate denialism of the Trump administration, with his climate change denying cabinet nominees, all of whom may be ratified by the Senate before the Day of Action, threaten all that the college stands for:
- Student and alumni well-being – and that of everyone on the planet – is threatened by climate change. While global economic elites, such as American citizens and Swarthmore alums, may escape the worst ravages of a warming climate (assuming humanity survives), their wellbeing will be undermined by the need to respond to climate change impacts.
- Climate change is, already at this early stage, imposing the heaviest burdens of those least responsible for the emissions generating the greenhouse effect, the poorest nations and people on the planet. The social injustice of the distribution of climate change impacts imposes an imperative for any institution claiming a social justice mission to do all it can to reduce the threat and magnitude of those impacts.
- Investments in the fossil fuel industry have, arguably, already not performed as well as portfolios excluding the industrial sector. As the cost of renewables continues to fall and the returns on energy efficiency rise with the advent of more extreme weather conditions, the prospects for the fossil fuel industry will continue to decline and returns will fall further. A prudent fiduciary should at least begin to divest from a sector that is clearly threatened by expected future trends.
The college may be greening itself in its physical operations, but that is not enough. Doing so does nothing to significantly alleviate the social injustices of massive climate change, nor does it help protect the endowment from risks to the fossil fuel sector.
Admittedly, the new Trump administration may increase the returns to the endowment’s investments in fossil fuels. Does that return warrant abandoning the social justice mission? Injustice is not an investment.
The new administration in Washington and its toxic anti-social justice rhetoric warrants the opprobrium of the Swarthmore community. Divestment will demonstrate the college’s sentiment at the same time as it serves the three concerns of the college mentioned above.
As an alum, I believe that it is important for us to hold our institution accountable and hold it to the high standards it sets for itself and demanded of us. You can too – support the day of action on January 23rd by calling President Smith at 610-328-8314 and emailing the Board of Managers (email@example.com), President Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org), VP for Finance and Administration Greg Brown (email@example.com), and Sustainability Director Aurora Winslade (firstname.lastname@example.org) to ask them to reject the deadly climate denialism of the Trump administration and move forward with a plan to divest Swarthmore’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry. With your help, we can make a powerful call for the change we so desperately need.
Peter B. Meyer ’65 is Professor Emeritus of Urban Policy and Economics at the University of Louisville and President and Chief Economist of The E.P. Systems Group, Inc.