Letter-to-the-Editor: Mountain Justice Responds to Board Divestment Statement

Mountain Justice is back from an exciting summer, and ready to start in on an even more exciting semester! A few days into it, the Board published an “Open Letter to the Community”, detailing reasons why the body would not divest from fossil fuels. Here is the first in what we hope to be a series of 5 articles in response to the Board over the next several days and weeks.

Find the original post on the Daily Gazette here.

Letter by members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice

Mountain Justice and its allies appreciate the Board of Managers’ response to our request for a report on fossil fuel divestment. While the “Open Letter” sent out on Wednesday does not constitute the requested full investigation into the logistics of divesting, it is nonetheless an important moment of transparent communication with the entire campus community that we find commendable. We hope this will set a precedent for future open communication between the Board and student groups raising a multitude of concerns around college practices and policies. That said, we find the Board’s understanding of its responsibilities regarding climate change, divestment, and its own processes to be troubling at best.

First, we don’t find the Board’s approach to mitigating climate change appropriate. It is misleading and unjustifiably self-congratulatory for the Board to talk about “carbon neutrality” or “reducing our carbon footprint” at the exclusion of discussion of strategies for immediate institutional change, especially when they’ve given themselves 22 more years to achieve carbon neutrality. Already climate change and extraction are painful daily realities for communities across the globe and in our own backyard today. This framework also masks the true gravity of the crisis facing our planet. The Board’s letter neglects that the bulk of the effects of climate change are borne by people of color, low-income people, and people living in the Global South, whose marginalization has been historically ignored. For those on the frontlines of extraction and climate change, transitioning away from a fossil fuel-based economy is not a matter for concern, but one of survival. Their health, culture, and quality of life depend on the immediate transition away from fossil fuels. These issues are ones that Mountain Justice has personally highlighted to the Board repeatedly, always to the same response of dismissal. Understanding the suffering people are enduring from extraction, as well as the scientific consensus on climate change, the timeframe to address these issues needs to be within the next two years, not the next two decades. Most importantly, this is an urgent issue of justice.

Not once in the Board’s response to Mountain Justice is the word “justice” used, except in reference to Mountain Justice. There is not a single appeal in the letter to principles of equity or justice in addressing climate change. In one particularly striking instance, they blatantly ignore the suffering caused directly by the process of fracking when they prescribe efforts to merely patch methane leaks. Justice and equity lie at the core of our understanding of climate change, environmental justice, and institutional responsibility, as well as the stated values of the college itself. Many of us chose to attend Swarthmore out of a belief that it would be an institution and community committed to working towards a more just world. By working in solidarity with existing communities of resistance to remove fossil fuel companies’ social license to operate, divestment helps to address injustice across the world.

Most climate researchers agree that we must drastically curtail emissions and move towards elimination of emissions and, by extension, extraction by 2015 in order to avert climate catastrophe. Given this urgency, 2035 is far too late a date for Swarthmore to reach “carbon neutrality,” which, as outlined in the College’s Climate Action Plan, would be achieved largely by purchasing carbon credits to be cashed in the Global South. Not only are these carbon credits incapable of addressing the true nature of the climate and extraction crises and corporate and governmental emissions, but the carbon credits that Swarthmore’s Climate Action Plan relies upon support plant monoculture development, a project that has been linked to poverty, violence, and water scarcity around the globe, and which proliferates the false idea that we can simply buy our way to a better world. Setting aside the negative externalities of carbon offsets, their use to negate our carbon footprint is a limited approach. While valuable in their own way, these consumption-based approaches to helping the environment don’t address the political power of the fossil fuel companies: a key reason why there arefew competitive alternatives in the energy market. Swarthmore is a relatively small consumer of fossil fuels, but, given its size, holds a disproportionately large amount of moral and financial capital as a prestigious and well-funded institution. We believe it is imperative for Swarthmore to use both of these manifestations of its capital to combat climate change and other injustices.

The Board’s equation of personal consumption with morality is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the Board’s over emphasis on personal consumption decisions fails to recognize the larger, structural barriers to “choice.” Framing the fight against climate change exclusively as efforts to reduce personal consumption perpetuates racism and classism. It is often only those who are already economically and, more often than not, racially privileged who can reasonably consider significant energy consumption reduction. Second, if Swarthmore desires to be a moral institution, it must consider as a body the moral consequences of all its actions, including, among others, its investment policy, decision-making processes, admissions policies, and curriculum. Equating morality with personal choice ignores the reality that structural decisions also have deep moral implications. The logic of “personal sacrifice” obfuscates the stranglehold fossil fuel companies have over the energy options available in this country and throughout the world. By divesting from fossil fuels – and calling out directly the business model of fossil fuel extraction – Swarthmore can help to create a space in which alternative forms of energy are viable options for students, faculty, staff, and Board members. If we are morally culpable for our energy use, we are also morally culpable for not challenging a system that is destroying the planet; in the big picture, we see the latter moral failure as the more serious one. It is a moral imperative to challenge the current paradigm of extraction and runaway emissions, as well as that of endless, unhinged growth–either of the fossil fuel industry, or of college endowments. We see divestment as one method among many of addressing these concerns, all of which ought to be actively pursued.

Over the past several months, Swarthmore Mountain Justice has been challenged to work more closely in solidarity with those on campus demanding a College that deals justly and effectively with sexual assault, diversity and inclusion and the treatment of undocumented students. While we continue to work towards the college’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry, the frustrations and demands expressed by those present at the Board meeting in May are frustrations with business as usual at this college and demands for a more equitable institution. Members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice stand by these struggles, and are committed to making sure that any action the college takes on climate change and extraction does not come at other students’ expense. Mountain Justice will not accept a plan for divestment that impacts financial aid. While members of Mountain Justice are grateful for the generous financial aid that Swarthmore has provided, this does not render us incapable of demanding that what makes our education possible does not also make possible the destruction of our future and so many others’ presents. We will address why financial aid reduction, or indeed, likely any reduction at all, will not be necessary in the near future. Should the Board of Managers choose to cut financial aid, it would be out of choice, not necessity.

By framing the rationale for divestment solely around climate change, the Board is failing once again to engage with the question of fossil fuel extraction. Though we and the Board do share a commitment to fighting climate change, we disagree severely in the urgency needed with which to address this crisis, and the very real effects that communities–predominantly low income communities and communities of color–are presently feeling and fighting against due to the burning and extraction of fossil fuels. Divestment may not be the only way to shift us away from a fossil-fuel-based economy, but, as an institution with a $1.9 billion endowment, our financial footprint is far bigger than our carbon footprint. If Swarthmore were to divest, it would have real effects – it would likely make huge ripples, encourage other peer schools to divest, and highlight divestment as a tactic to defame fossil fuel companies. The Board’s letter mentions that the President’s Climate Plan sets an exciting precedent for governmental action on climate change. We see divestment as another avenue to facilitate the social and political climate where such legislation is plausible. We might also remind the Board that if they really do hold hope for legislation sufficiently drastic to combat climate change- that would keep 80% of current oil reserves in the ground- it might be unwise to be invested in companies that suddenly lose that much of their capital. We also encourage the Board to remember President Obama’s climate speech that introduced the initiative they cited: “Invest. Divest. Remind folks that there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.”

Despite an overstated potential for economic setback, if Swarthmore College is truly committed to stopping runaway climate change, its chief concern can no longer be the rapid and uninhibited growth of the institutional endowment. Endless growth is a false methodology that inherently prioritizes money over human, moral and environmental concern. It is the same logic on which the fossil fuel industry has operated since its inception, and what has driven us to our current economic and environmental crises.

A crucial component of Swarthmore’s and, by extension, the Board’s philosophy is that the College’s primary method of enacting change is by educating students to be elite decision-makers and powerful people, who then go on to enact change. As many of our professorshave noted education is not only something that happens in the classroom. It is not enough to merely preach that climate change is an urgent issue; we must also act in accordance with that belief. By divesting – and thus showing students and people across the world how to act in accordance with stated values – Swarthmore can provide a prime educational opportunity not only for its students but for the nation. Swarthmore as an institution – through its budget, its hiring practices, its investments, its energy uses, its formal and informal programs – is implicated in this crisis in more ways than one. Any serious proposals for the institution to address climate change and extraction must reflect this.

This semester, Mountain Justice will continue to push the Board for Swarthmore’s full divestment from fossil fuels, as well as for increased accountability to the rest of the Swarthmore community. For the past three years, we have consistently attempted to collaborate and work within Swarthmore’s institutionalized decision-making bodies. Mountain Justice members have sat on Student Council, the Sustainability Committee, the Climate Action Plan Committee, the Committee on Investor Responsibility, and the Social Responsibility Committee of the Board. We have had multiple meetings each with the Sustainability Committee, with Rebecca Chopp, with Maurice Eldridge, and with the Board. We have tried negotiation, and they have refused to engage in a way that would make the negotiation productive and democratic. Instead of trying to work with Mountain Justice on divestment, or even responsible investment, the Board stymies change without proposing real alternatives upon which they are willing to act. They, not Mountain Justice, are the ones refusing to collaborate and work together. A huge range of other student causes on campus have been met similarly. Climate justice and the variety of issues with which it intersects demand an urgency of action in which the Board appears uninterested. Our actions this semester will reflect this urgency, and we invite all members of the community to join us.

Stay tuned for more updates in the coming days and weeks!

From Daily Gazette: Mountain Justice Make NYTimes.com Front Page

By Isabel Knight and Andrew Karas
Originally published December 5, 2012

Swarthmore Mountain Justice (MJ) made the front page of The New York Times’ website as the group’s campaign to to divest Swarthmore’s endowment from fossil fuels continues to gather momentum.

“I definitely think we’re part of a huge movement,” said Ali Roseberry-Polier ‘14, a member of MJ, in a late-night Skype conversation.

“We’re just starting to see the sort of mass action that we know is going to first win divestment campaigns and then force strong action for climate justice,” said MJ member Will Lawrence ‘13, also present in the Skype interview. “This needs to get enormous, so much bigger than where it is now. So I think we’re just at the beginning of it. It is really taking off right now.”

The reporter who wrote the story covers environmental issues for the Times and was put in touch with MJ by the Responsible Endowments Coalition, a non-profit that was co-founded by Morgan Simon ’04.

The article outlines the mission of MJ and the efforts of 350.org, a non-profit led by national environmental advocate Bill McKibben that urges institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

“We hope that that can be the beginning of a process that will lead to divestment for Swarthmore,” Lawrence said. “The administration has expressed to us that they share our concerns about environmental injustice.”

Fueled by the success of countries and colleges that divested from apartheid in South Africa, MJ and other groups are hoping to use the same strategy to make a meaningful change in the way students view their environment.

“I think that the Administration genuinely is concerned about the crisis that we’re facing right now,” Roseberry-Polier said. “I think that it’s hard not to be.”

MJ is well aware, however, that the Administration doesn’t yet share their belief that divestment is the proper means to achieve climate justice.

In the Times article, Treasurer and Vice President for Finance Suzanne Welsh is quoted as saying “To use the endowment in support of [social] missions is not appropriate. It’s not what our donors have given money for.” This response is echoed by numerous colleges across the US, especially those with multi-billion-dollar endowments, according to the article.

MJ is unwavering in its faith that the Swarthmore administration may someday join their side.

“The message that this community as a whole needs to communicate to them is, if they want to do something, divestment is where the movement is right now,” Lawrence said.

In that vein, MJ is staging a what Lawrence calls a “mini-rally” in front of Parrish at 12:30 on Friday, setting up a line of dominoes as a visual representation of the political momentum behind the divestment movement.

Also Friday is The Board of Managers Luncheon. Representatives of MJ will be meeting with members of the Board to begin what Lawrence hopes will be the beginning of a serious conversation about divesting.

Yesterday, Middlebury College announced an exploratory process on the issue of divestment, according to Roseberry-Polier. Unity College in Maine and Hampshire College in Massachusetts have already committed to divest, and a Harvard University student government referendum has also supported divestment.

“Bryn Mawr does have a campaign right now, and we’ve been working with them a fair amount,”  Roseberry-Polier said. “Swarthmore’s really in a position to be a leader on this. A few months ago there were six schools doing divestment. Two years ago we were the only school with a divestment campaign. And now there are well over a hundred.”

Delco Times: Swarthmore students protest endowment from fossil fuels

Originally published Friday, December 7, 2012


SWARTHMORE — Swarthmore College students lined the blue steps of Parrish Hall on Friday and held their signs, “Swat Divests,” “Other Schools Divest,” “Bold climate legislation in the United States,” “Climate justice and sustainable communities.”

The three dozen students, most from Swarthmore Mountain Justice, were rallying inside the hall to call on the college’s Board of Managers to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

“It’s clear at this point divestment is not going to go away,” one of the Swarthmore Mountain Justice members, William Lawrence, said as he stood by the steps stacked with cardboard box painted dominoes.

The group chose dominoes to symbolize the ripple effect Swarthmore’s divestment could have on climate change by motivating other schools to do the same, then possibly leading to federal legislation and then international climate action and sustainable communities.

“It’s a long journey to get there but we know we have no chance but to act,” Lawrence said.

Alexa Ross, another Swarthmore Mountain Justice member, explained the significance of the moment.

“For me and for all of us, this is a struggle for narrative,” she said, adding that it was an incredible opportunity to create the stimulus for change that could transform the future. “I hope you join us.”

Maurice Eldridge, Swarthmore College’s vice president for college and community relations, said some board members met with members of Swarthmore Mountain Justice during the rally to share their perspective.

He offered some of it.

“I think the discussion is how we best respond to it, whether divestment is the best thing or other ways,” Eldridge said. “I don’t think the focus on the fossil fuel industry is the wrong one. The question is, ‘How do you affect change?’”

Swarthmore College President Rebecca Chopp penned a letter responding to the students’ actions, explaining that the college stands with them and is on a path to achieve carbon neutrality as a campus by 2035.

She also addressed the request for divestment.

“To the extent that we are invested in the fossil fuel industry, we believe exercising stockholders’ rights is a more effective way to change the industry than selling off stocks to be purchased by the next ready buyer and leaving ourselves without a voice in the company’s decision making,” Chopp wrote.

She said impacting government policy and practice would be more effective than divestment.

“Taxing the industry aggressively, pursuing meaningful policy change and targeting research and development of renewable energy provides a more holistic approach to overcoming the threat of climate change,” she wrote.

Lawrence appreciated the college administration’s willingness to talk with the students but expressed some frustration with the pace.

Having embarked on this issue two years ago and the first meeting with administration seven months ago, he was optimistic that the action to divest may be nearer.

“We’re trying to impress on them the urgency of the situation,” he explained.

Ross likened the effort to the movement that inspired divestment in South African funds during the era of apartheid.

“We’re in the middle of something big right now,” she said.

The NYTimes: To Stop Climate Change, Students Aim at College Portfolios


Originally published December 4, 2012

SWARTHMORE, Pa. — A group of Swarthmore College students is asking the school administration to take a seemingly simple step to combat pollution and climate change: sell off the endowment’s holdings in large fossil fuel companies. For months, they have been getting a simple answer: no.

As they consider how to ratchet up their campaign, the students suddenly find themselves at the vanguard of a national movement.

In recent weeks, college students on dozens of campuses have demanded that university endowment funds rid themselves of coal, oil and gas stocks. The students see it as a tactic that could force climate change, barely discussed in the presidential campaign, back onto the national political agenda.

“We’ve reached this point of intense urgency that we need to act on climate change now, but the situation is bleaker than it’s ever been from a political perspective,” said William Lawrence, a Swarthmore senior from East Lansing, Mich.

Students who have signed on see it as a conscious imitation of the successful effort in the 1980s to pressure colleges and other institutions to divest themselves of the stocks of companies doing business in South Africa under apartheid.

A small institution in Maine, Unity College, has already voted to get out of fossil fuels. Another, Hampshire College in Massachusetts, has adopted a broad investment policy that is ridding its portfolio of fossil fuel stocks.

“In the near future, the political tide will turn and the public will demand action on climate change,” Stephen Mulkey, the Unity College president, wrote in a letter to other college administrators. “Our students are already demanding action, and we must not ignore them.”

But at colleges with large endowments, many administrators are viewing the demand skeptically, saying it would undermine their goal of maximum returns in support of education. Fossil fuel companies represent a significant portion of the stock market, comprising nearly 10 percent of the value of the Russell 3000, a broad index of 3,000 American companies.

No school with an endowment exceeding $1 billion has agreed to divest itself of fossil fuel stocks. At Harvard, which holds the largest endowment in the country at $31 billion, the student body recently voted to ask the school to do so. With roughly half the undergraduates voting, 72 percent of them supported the demand.

“We always appreciate hearing from students about their viewpoints, but Harvard is not considering divesting from companies related to fossil fuels,” Kevin Galvin, a university spokesman, said by e-mail.

Several organizations have been working on some version of a divestment campaign, initially focusing on coal, for more than a year. But the recent escalation has largely been the handiwork of a grass-roots organization, 350.org, that focuses on climate change, and its leader, Bill McKibben, a writer turned advocate. The group’s name is a reference to what some scientists see as a maximum safe level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, 350 parts per million. The level is now about 390, an increase of 41 percent since before the Industrial Revolution.

Mr. McKibben is touring the country by bus, speaking at sold-out halls and urging students to begin local divestment initiatives focusing on 200 energy companies. Many of the students attending said they were inspired to do so by an article he wrote over the summer in Rolling Stone magazine, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”

Speaking recently to an audience at the University of Vermont, Mr. McKibben painted the fossil fuel industry as an enemy that must be defeated, arguing that it had used money and political influence to block climate action in Washington. “This is no different than the tobacco industry — for years, they lied about the dangers of their industry,” Mr. McKibben said.

Eric Wohlschlegel, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said that continued use of fossil fuels was essential for the country’s economy, but that energy companies were investing heavily in ways to emit less carbon dioxide.

In an interview, Mr. McKibben said he recognized that a rapid transition away from fossil fuels would be exceedingly difficult. But he said strong government policies to limit emissions were long overdue, and were being blocked in part by the political power of the incumbent industry.

Mr. McKibben’s goal is to make owning the stocks of these companies disreputable, in the way that owning tobacco stocks has become disreputable in many quarters. Many colleges will not buy them, for instance.

Mr. McKibben has laid out a series of demands that would get the fuel companies off 350.org’s blacklist. He wants them to stop exploring for new fossil fuels, given that they have already booked reserves about five times as large as scientists say society can afford to burn. He wants them to stop lobbying against emission policies in Washington. And he wants them to help devise a transition plan that will leave most of their reserves in the ground while encouraging lower-carbon energy sources.

“They need more incentive to make the transition that they must know they need to make, from fossil fuel companies to energy companies,” Mr. McKibben said.

Most college administrations, at the urging of their students, have been taking global warming seriously for years, spending money on steps like cutting energy consumption and installing solar panels.

The divestment demand is so new that most administrators are just beginning to grapple with it. Several of them, in interviews, said that even though they tended to agree with students on the seriousness of the problem, they feared divisive boardroom debates on divestment.

That was certainly the case in the 1980s, when the South African divestment campaign caused bitter arguments across the nation.

The issue then was whether divestment, potentially costly, would have much real effect on companies doing business in South Africa. Even today, historians differ on whether it did. But the campaign required prominent people to grapple with the morality of apartheid, altering the politics of the issue. Economic pressure from many countries ultimately helped to force the whites-only South African government to the bargaining table.

Mr. Lawrence, the Swarthmore senior, said that many of today’s students found that campaign inspirational because it “transformed what was seemingly an intractable problem.”

Swarthmore, a liberal arts college southwest of Philadelphia, is a small school with a substantial endowment, about $1.5 billion. The trustees acceded to divestment demands during that campaign, in 1986, but only after a series of confrontational tactics by students, including brief occupations of the president’s office.

The board later adopted a policy stating that it would be unlikely to take such a step again.

“The college’s policy is that the endowment is not to be invested for social purposes” beyond the obvious one of educating students, said Suzanne P. Welsh, vice president for finance at the school. “To use the endowment in support of other missions is not appropriate. It’s not what our donors have given money for.”

About a dozen Swarthmore students came up with the divestment tactic two years ago after working against the strip mining of coal atop mountains in Appalachia, asking the school to divest itself of investments in a short list of energy companies nicknamed the Sordid 16.

So far, the students have avoided confrontation. The campaign has featured a petition signed by nearly half the student body, small demonstrations and quirky art installations. The college president, a theologian named Rebecca Chopp, has expressed support for their goals but not their means.

Matters could escalate in coming months, with Swarthmore scheduled to host a February meeting — the students call it a “convergence” — of 150 students from other colleges who are working on divestment.

Students said they were well aware that the South Africa campaign succeeded only after on-campus actions like hunger strikes, sit-ins and the seizure of buildings. Some of them are already having talks with their parents about how far to go.

“When it comes down to it, the members of the board are not the ones who are inheriting the climate problem,” said Sachie Hopkins-Hayakawa, a Swarthmore senior from Portland, Ore. “We are.”

Brent Summers contributed reporting from Burlington, Vt.

From Daily Gazette: Mountain Justice Takes Stage with National Activists

By Lily Jamison-Cash
November 19, 2012

Swarthmore’s Mountain Justice has officially stepped into the big leagues. Sara Blazevic ’15 of Mountain Justice was invited to speak about divesting from the fossil fuel industry at a Saturday night gathering in Philadelphia that featured high-profile climate activist Bill McKibben as the keynote speaker.

The event, part of the national Do the Math tour spearheaded by McKibben and his Project 350, also included Josh Fox, director of the anti-fracking filmGasland, and a speaker from New Yorkers Against Fracking. Approximately 30 Swarthmore students were present in an audience that included Vice President for College and Community Relations Maurice Eldridge ’61.

“Do the Math” aims to raise awareness about the role fossil fuels play in climate change. The campaign, which has taken a strong stand in favor of divestment from the fossil fuel industry, began with a Rolling Stone article by McKibben this August.

The divestment solution would “require asking often-good institutions to change their ways,” McKibben said in his talk. He proposes they wind down their investments in the fossil fuel industry over the next five years.

Blazevic said that Swarthmore should be able to “leverage its financial weight to mobilize influence,” and that it would be “financially feasible” to do so. She also pointed out the need for a larger backbone of support. “We alone can’t convince Swarthmore to divest,” she said. “We need a mass movement, faculty, churches, and banks giving back.”

“Swarthmore’s in the lead,” McKibben said in an interview with The Daily Gazette. “It’s one of the places in the country where the argument’s more advanced, going further down that road.” He said that “Do the Math” had reached 70 college campuses thus far, and he anticipated as many as 200 by Christmas.

“Swarthmore’s one of my favorite colleges in the country,” he said. “I admire it and its students immensely partly because it comes from a deeply moral tradition. That Quaker background means it should be more reflective than most places.”

“[Swarthmore Mountain Justice] have discovered what a hard argument it is,” McKibben said. “Especially in a place like Swarthmore that should be more receptive. It’s hard to buck it, but we’re so proud of the work they’re doing.”

Although Project 350 started by “going after politicians” and making big political statements, such as a march on Washington to protest the Keystone-XL pipeline, the movement turned to the fossil fuel industry after the Rolling Stone article, according to McKibben. He said that his argument in that article “made it clearer that we needed to go after the industry above all, that’s where the real power lay, that’s why we’re getting nowhere in almost any capital on earth.”

Mountain Justice was first inspired to get involved in divestment by activists on the frontlines who they had encountered through their work in rural West Virginia and in Texas at the Keystone-XL pipeline, said Blazevic. McKibben’s invitation to speak at Saturday’s event enabled Mountain Justice to tell that message to a much larger audience.

“We’ve been working on it for a while, so it makes sense to connect with the national energy around it,” said Mountain Justice Member Ali Roseberry-Polier ’14.

“We made an alliance [with Project 350] because of their clout in the political and social movement world,” Blazevic said. “Us being backed by 350 will give the message more force on campus.”

McKibben noted that the divestment movement was not limited to students but instead should involve the entire college community. He also encouraged faculty to step in. “This is what tenure was made for,” he said in his speech.