Is it Feasible?
Will it Make a Difference?
Extraction Destroys Communities
What is Climate Justice?
Swarthmore Mountain Justice formed in mid-October of 2010. During Swarthmore’s Spring and Fall breaks of 2010, students traveled to West Virginia to learn about mountaintop removal coal mining, an extreme form of coal extraction that destroys the landscape and poisons Appalachian communities. While there, we had formative conversations with activists and people living in frontline communities, and saw first-hand the effects of this type of mining. When we returned to campus, we wanted to continue to act in solidarity with the people we had met from front-line communities. But we also recognized that as students at Swarthmore, we were very far removed from where coal mining and MTR was actually taking place. We wondered what type of campaign was best suited to our unique position as students on Swarthmore’s campus, and realized that, as students, we were participants in an institution with a large endowment partially invested in mountaintop removal as well as other destructive extractive industries.
Through Swarthmore, we have access to large amounts of money and power, money that is currently fueling destructive extractive practices. Knowing this, we felt compelled to act. We decided on a divestment campaign as a way for us to use the power and position we have as students to move our institution’s money to stop funding practices that harm people’s health and communities. By working on a campaign that targets extractive industries, including those practicing MTR, we see ourselves as supporting the struggle of folks in Appalachia and in other frontline communities.
While Swarthmore College does not release its precise holdings, we are calling for divestment from Fossil Free Indexes’ list, “Carbon Underground 200,” which includes the 200 fossil fuel companies (including oil, natural gas, coal, and utilities) with the largest reserves.
- Immediately freeze all new investments in the “Carbon Underground 200,” including the “Sordid Sixteen.”
- As soon as contracts allow, divest the college’s direct holdings in the “Carbon Underground 200.”
- Over a period of 2-5 years, divest our comingled funds from the “Carbon Underground 200.”
- Reinvest at least 1 percent of the endowment into community and renewable energy solutions, including community development financial institutions and revolving loan funds. Feedback on allocation will be provided by campus stakeholders working through the Committee on Investor Responsibility.
Divestment from fossil fuels would be a commitment to remove college money from those companies outlined above, and to refuse to invest in them in the future. Swarthmore is not currently invested in all of these companies. Divestment ensures that Swarthmore never will be invested in any of these sixteen companies, so long as they continue dirty energy extraction, which currently accounts for the vast majority of their profits.
Divestment is the selling of stocks in a particular company or industry for a political reason. Divestment campaigns are a serious approach to disrupting the cycle of a crisis. For example, the movement to divest from companies tied to the government of Sudan ignited because of the failure of political channels to stop the genocide in Darfur. The fossil fuel industry’s brazen destruction of communities, poisoning of our air and water, contributions to the global climate crisis, and entanglement in our political system have led us to a crisis point that must be addressed using all the tools and resources we have. Divestment is one of these approaches and can shift the dialogue in both the financial and policy arenas.
In asking for divestment, we are implicitly stating that investment is a choice. It is a political choice with global consequences. Choosing to invest in an industry means financially endorsing that industry’s practices. In adopting the “Greening of Swarthmore” document, Swarthmore’s administration explicitly acknowledges the environmental consequences of its investment decisions. It states, “The way we invest our endowment funds is inextricably linked to long term sustainability. Greening investments is more than a symbolic gesture, it is a concrete display of our commitment to fostering healthy communities and environments.” However, in contradiction to its stated values and claims of leadership in campus sustainability, Swarthmore currently sponsors injustice by funding fossil fuel companies and climate change.
Is it Feasible?
Yes! A number of institutional investors currently use social screens to avoid fossil fuels, including Blackrock, the largest fund management company in the world. Negative or avoidance screening–used as far back as the 1920s–works by avoiding investment in companies whose practices are inconsistent with the personal values of the investor. These include investments in tobacco, firearms, and gambling, military contractors and nuclear weapons manufacturers. Divestment from fossil fuels would work in essentially the same way: Swarthmore’s investment managers would screen out the sixteen domestically owned, publicly traded companies when making investment decisions. For more information on Socially Responsible Investment, please see “The New SRI: Socially Responsive Indexing,” a report by the Aperio Group, a well-respected investment management firm whose thoughts on SRI have provided considerable guidance for our own research.
To demonstrate the financial feasibility of divestment, it is instructive to consider a worst-case scenario. The energy sector is 4-8% of the U.S. economy. If we divest 8% of domestic equity holdings, this represents just 1.6% of the endowment, or $24 million. In a worst case scenario, these $24 million–once reinvested–would make 0% returns. If the alternative is a business-as-usual 15% growth, the college’s relative losses would be $3.6 million, 0.24% of the endowment. To reiterate, this is the worst case scenario. It is also entirely a thought experiment and is in no way intended as financial fact; the volatile nature of financial markets makes any prediction of this sort difficult.
There is a growing body of research indicating that fossil fuel divestment shields endowments from risk. Major financial institutions like Morgan Stanley, Bernstein, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, HSBC have issued bearish reports questioning the long-term profitability of fossil fuel investments. While fossil fuel investments have been reliably profitable in the past, this is changing as companies resort to more capital-intensive processes like mountaintop removal coal mining and tar sands oil extraction. Over the past 10 years, the fossil fuel industry has underperformed the market average. In other words, the average endowment would be better off today if it had divested from fossil fuels 10 years ago. With necessary carbon regulations and the increasing affordability of renewables, there is no reason to believe that this trend will reverse.
Will it Make a Difference?
Divestment campaigns find strength in numbers. When one investor sells its stock in a company, another investor simply buys that same stock. In isolation, this does not have a significant impact on the viability of the company. However, when many investors sell the same stock, the stock price will drop. This effect is compounded when money managers create special portfolios in response to a divestment campaign. For example, during the apartheid divestment campaign, investment managers created apartheid-free mutual funds. This created a serious disincentive for corporations to support the apartheid regime. Just this past spring, Blackrock, the world’s largest fund management company, created a fossil free index, bringing divestment into the financial mainstream.
Divestment also has a serious political impact. National divestment movements affect the way ordinary people and the media think about and portray an issue. This inspires action in the political arena. Using again the example of apartheid, the apartheid divestment movement caused the United States government to change its political relationship with South Africa. A recent empirical study by Oxford University, “Stranded Assets,”confirmed the effectiveness of divestment; almost all the divestment campaigns they reviewed “were successful in lobbying for legislation affecting stigmatised firms.“
The “Stranded Assets” study called the fossil fuel divestment movement the fastest growing divestment movement in history. From just six campaigns in 2012, the movement has grown to over 500 campaigns around the world. As large numbers of people and institutions get behind divesting from fossil fuels, we can change the political dialogue around the fossil fuel industry, and will help to dismantle the extraction industry’s social license to operate. Our ultimate goal is to stigmitize and delegitimize the fossil fuel industry and inspire strong political action from state and federal governments.
Extraction Destroys Communities
Swarthmore Mountain Justice is waging this campaign in solidarity with the amazing activists fighting fossil fuel extraction in their home communities. Everywhere the fossil fuel industry operates, it sows poverty, sickness and death. Communities are fighting back, and have won many great victories, but investors like Swarthmore make the problem worse by actively funding destructive practices like mountaintop removal, fracking, offshore drilling, and more.
What is Climate Justice?
Research shows that climate change will most severely impact populations of society that are already marginalized. Climate change is not just an environmental issue — is is a concern for anybody interested in confronting racism, sexism and economic injustice.
Click here to read how women are severely impacted by climate change.
Click here to learn how racism and environmental destruction intersected in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Click here for a discussion on how climate change disproportionately impacts poor communities in the Global South.
You can learn more about Swarthmore Mountain Justice in our 2011-2012 Institutional Memory Document.