Swarthmore Should Commit More Fully to Climate Action

On January 29, Middlebury College announced its “Energy2028” plan that commits the school to convert to 100 percent renewable energy by 2028. This commitment includes moving to 100 percent renewable energy for electric and thermal power, reducing energy consumption by 25 percent, and divesting from fossil fuels over the next fifteen years. Swarthmore, as a peer institution and a college that touts its dedication to social justice and environmental protection, should follow in Middlebury’s footsteps. In particular, Swarthmore should promise to divest from fossil fuels within a concrete amount of time.

The college’s efforts to take environmental actions have been mixed over time. In 1991, after the process of divestment from South African Apartheid, the Board passed a ban on prioritizing social issues in the allocation of money, stating that investment would thereby be based only on the “best long-term financial results, rather than to pursue other social objectives.”

In 2010, then president of the College Rebecca Chopp signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment along with numerous other universities. This commitment prompted the creation of a Climate Action Plan in 2012 in which the College pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035.

However, in 2013, then Chair of the Board of Managers Gil Kemp ̕ 72 spoke on behalf of the board of managers unilaterally dismissing the idea of divestment of the college endowment of fossil fuels.

“[I]t is our collective judgment that the cost of divestment would far outweigh any potential benefit,” Kemp said. “If we thought divestment would change the behavior of fossil fuel companies, or galvanize public officials to do something about climate change, or reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels, this would be a much tougher decision. We believe we have other, more effective means to achieve this objective.”

As reported on the Office of Sustainability’s webpage, in 2014, nearly all of the college’s investment managers confirmed that they “consider climate change in their investment process and dedicate significant resources to defining, measuring, analyzing, and improving the environmental impact of their investment decisions.”

Then, in February 2016, the Board of Managers allocated $300,000 for a carbon charge and President Smith encouraged 100 of our peer institutions to also consider implement carbon pricing as matter of policy. The College’s internal carbon charge consists of a school-wide levy on departments, the use of those revenues from the charge to renewable and educational projects, and a shadow price which encourages less carbon-intensive carbon projects.

However, the 2016 policies are less robust than they might initially seem. The tax on departments is only 1.25% of department budgets. (The Peace and Conflict Studies department has committed more money to offset carbon emissions from department travel, and gives more than required — 6.25% — to the departmental levy, but is an exception among departments) Our commitment to renewable energy, too, is less than complete. Like many businesses, the college purchases renewable energy credits from wind farms in Iowa instead of only committing to capital projects powered solely by renewable energy. Instead of directly reducing carbon production, the college compensates firms that do.

While the College has been willing to address climate change in the context of our day-to-day facility functions, at a larger, societal level, we have fallen short by continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies. While divestment won’t reduce real carbon emissions or the behavior of firms in the short term, it helps create a cultural shift. Indeed, it seems paradoxical to take any strong stance on climate change — initiating carbon taxes, signing agreements — while continuing to fund the industry most responsible for its effects.

Swarthmore should resolve this paradox, and, so to speak, put its money where its mouth is. Middlebury’s commitments are a good place to start. If Swarthmore and enough other institutions follow its lead, eventually, material changes will follow. Months ago, the IPCC report made clear that the next 12 years are crucial in the fight against climate change. In a time as dire as this, we cannot in good faith tout our commitment to reducing climate change without channeling all that we can towards the cause.

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