5C coalition urges fossil fuel divestment

By Emma French

On Monday, Dec. 3, supporters of the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign will march through the campuses to spread awareness of their cause. The march will begin at the Frary steps at 5 p.m. and weave through the campuses before returning to Frary for a photo. The photo and official letters asking that the colleges divest any endowments in fossil fuel industries will then be delivered to each of the five colleges’ administrations.

This campaign is one of over 100 campus campaigns that are emerging nationwide, ignited by renowned climate activist, Bill McKibben’s “Do The Math+” tour, which began Nov. 7. Already the message has spread beyond college campuses. After McKibben’s stop in Seattle, the mayor announced that he would be looking into divesting the city from fossil fuels. Portland’s mayor quickly followed suit.

One of the leaders of the 5C campaign, Pitzer junior Jess Grady-Benson, became involved when Dierdre Smith from 350.org contacted her about helping to get students to McKibben’s talk at UCLA. Grady-Benson was invited to give the opening speech before McKibben spoke, in which she emphasized the importance of students taking the initiative in leading divestment on their campuses.

“The purpose of this campaign is to fight the most lucrative industry in the nation—the fossil fuel industry,” Grady-Benson said. “We want the five colleges to commit to investing in our bright futures, instead of a socially and environmentally destructive industry.”

The campaign targets 200 oil, coal, and natural gas companies that make up the majority of the world’s known reserves. Combined, the Claremont Colleges have $3 billion in endowments, and as of now it is unknown how much of that is being invested and what percentage is going directly to these 200 companies.

Proponents of the campaign believe that the colleges have a duty to divest in order to adhere to their own stated values. Pomona sophomore Meagan Tokunaga, who also worked with Smith to get 5C students to McKibben’s talk, believes that divesting will fulfill the 5Cs’ “supposed commitment” to sustainability.

“[The Claremont Colleges] administrations cannot claim environmental responsibility while they are invested in morally ambiguous stocks and bonds,” Tokunaga said.

Char Miller, Pomona professor and department head of Environmental Analysis, agreed.

“The goal is really to narrow the gap between what we say our ideals are and the reality of our actions,” Miller said. “If as faculty it is our job to train [students] to be critical thinkers of the world around them, then this is surely a way that we can act on the beliefs that we convey in the classroom.”

Shortly after an email detailing the 5C Divestment Campaign was forwarded to the Environmental Analysis listserv, several professors sent letters of support, galvanizing the campaign. In addition to issuing his full support, Pomona geology professor Rick Hazlett divulged that earlier that week he had divested his entire $95,000 fossil energy portfolio.

“This [campaign] is meant, as in the case of divestment from South African companies during the apartheid era, to send a fresh and we hope significant message to Wall Street, the media, and government, that we want, and the world needs, drastic change in the direction of its status quo energy provision,” Hazlett wrote. “No more business as usual.”

Paul Steinberg, Harvey Mudd professor of Political Science and Environmental Policy, also sent an email of support in which he recounted his own involvement and arrest during a peaceful occupation of an administrative building, as part ofcivil disobedience protests during the apartheid era.

“At the time,” Steinberg wrote. “The most common argument against pulling investments out of apartheid South Africa ran as follows: These steps won’t have any impact because (a) our impact is too small relative to the larger world of trade and investment; and (b) others will just rush in and fill the void, buying cheaper stocks or establishing themselves as the new trading partners.”

Critics of the divestment campaign make some of these same arguments. John Jurewitz, Pomona professor of Energy Economics, believes that divesting the colleges from fossil fuels would, from an economic standpoint, be purely symbolic.

“Not to say that it shouldn’t be done,” Jurewitz said. “My criticism is that it is way too easily done, doesn’t involve any real sacrifice on our parts and is unlikely to be very effective. If you think that it is going to hurt the companies or make it harder for them to finance their businesses, I don’t think that would be the consequence. Even if every college in the United States did exactly the same thing I think it would only make the tiniest dent, if any, in their stock prices. The international capital markets, where these stocks and bonds are traded, are huge, and they’re traded by hard-headed people who compare the financial pros and cons of investing in various industries. They’re going to bid the prices up to what they think they’re worth relative to other investments.”

The impact that divesting would have on the energy industry is an important question and some critics of divestment argue that a wholesale ban of fossil fuels is unrealistic. Jurewitz offered two alternatives he believed would be more effective than divestment.

“Why don’t we take the money we are divesting from Exxon-type companies and devote it to some venture capitalists who are investing in the development of new green technologies,” Jurewitz said. “In other words we wouldn’t simply divest, but instead we would realign the investment portfolio so that it’s not just withdrawing support from fossil fuels but also lending support to alternative solutions. Another possibility is that you keep the Exxon-type stocks but use their dividends to buy California carbon allowances and retire them. That’s something that would actually have a constructive effect.”

Supporters of the divestment campaign reference the U.S. divesting from South Africa during apartheid because the current movement has also begun on campuses and is being led by students. The first college in the nation to withdraw all of its South African investments was Hampshire College in Massachusetts, a liberal arts college comparable in size to any of the five Claremont Colleges.

“The Claremont Colleges are small, but as part of a larger movement for change, [divestment has] a proven track record of making a difference – symbolically and materially – in sending a message about the kind of world we want to live in,” Steinberg wrote. “For these reasons and more, we should all join the students and faculty leading this [divestment] charge.”

Jurewitz sees a major difference in the two movements.

“My problem with the [apartheid] analogy is that the signal we were sending to South Africa was clear and targeted to a specific highly immoral policy,” Jurewitz said. “We weren’t telling South Africa to stop being South Africa. Exactly what are we telling the oil companies they should do for redemption?”

Despite these doubts, the students leading the Claremont College Divestment Campaign hope to have the colleges committed to divestment by the spring. Supporters claim that their involvement is about more than just achieving this goal, however.

“Whether this succeeds or not is not why you do it,” Miller said. “You do it to make a statement and statements are important whether [or not] they ultimately are successful in achieving their goals. In a time in which one can easily understand why pessimism is rampant, that’s exactly the moment that you take an action that counters that pessimism. We understand that the world is changing and there are not a lot of actions that we can take to shape that alteration in our climate and the consequences that are obviously already taking place. And so whatever my sense of the potential success of this, that can’t stop us from stepping forward. That is a requirement as a human being. So, onward!”

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