Divestment: More Than Distraction

Courtesy of Miller Saltzman

by Meagan Tokunaga, Rebecca Boorstin, and Christopher Eskilson

Contributing Reporters

On Sept. 15, The Chronicle of Higher Education ran an op-ed entitled “Divestiture is Nothing but a Distraction”—written by Pomona College President David Oxtoby. 

Divestiture, or divestment, refers to a campaign college students began on campuses across the United States in 2011 to remove fossil fuel investments from colleges’ endowment portfolios.

We, on behalf of the 50 students of Claremont Climate Justice, whole-heartedly disagree that divestment is a distraction. Students in our 5C coalition seek climate justice, the reconciliation of climate destruction’s disproportionate consequences on people of lower socioeconomic classes across the globe. We see divestment as completely aligned with our mission as well as with a greater student-led climate movement. We want to address three misconceptions of divestment that President Oxtoby reveals in his article.

First, President Oxtoby contends that “symbolic actions” such as divestment are not worthwhile because they have “no effect on actual greenhouse-gas reductions.“ For President Oxtoby, ‘real change’ is carbon reductions at the individual or institutional level.

For us, ‘real change’ is carbon reductions across a fossil-fueled political economy. We find it impossible to achieve significant change in the current fossil fuel consumption paradigm. We believe a grassroots climate movement can incite the political support necessary to shift away from fossil fuels. 

Only by creating overwhelming support for climate change abatement will changes be represented in policy. We are tackling political change from the bottom up, by creating awareness through newspaper articles and all the conversations they represent.

Second, President Oxtoby suggests that we will have a bigger impact on climate change if we focus on reducing the college’s carbon footprint.

Obviously, building LEED-certified dorms and reducing water consumption are important steps. But at 397 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, it is far too late to rely on isolated individual or even institutional actions to sufficiently address the climate crisis. Only through coordinated political outcry will we change the current fossil fuel consumption paradigm.

Given the choice between replacing all lights on campus with CFL bulbs or organizing a divestment rally, we elect to divest every time. Even if every student switched bulbs, we would still be relying on an electricity grid powered by fossil fuels. 

Besides, how can we rely on voluntary individual actions to coordinate behavior? Changing bulbs does not inspire students to discuss nor challenge the current system of energy production. Imagine if every student had a conversation about climate justice before leaving Claremont; who knows the carbon reductions we can achieve from the leadership positions we will collectively hold? 

Lastly, President Oxtoby expressed the belief that divestment impedes other environmental activism efforts.

Divestment created a unified environmental movement on college campuses that previously did not exist. By bringing together social and environmental justice, divestment appeals to students across fields and interests in ways that strictly ecological efforts did not. Divestment does not divert existing efforts but instead forms coalitions with, for example, labor-organizing and indigenous student groups.

The impact of a new widespread grassroots campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. With campaigns on over 450 campuses across the country, no other tactic has spurred the same kind of coordinated young energy. Divestment is unique in the agency it provides students to make a difference on their campuses while addressing some of the greater systemic issues at hand.

To conclude, we offer a question: Must we move beyond ideologies to create a climate movement? Movements are built on strong moral commitments. Grassroots organizing and non-violent direct action are tools for communicating these ideologies. When you sacrifice, others wonder why. When a student from Harvard’s divestment campaign was arrested at a sit-in last May, people considered what he could be all riled up about.

On Sunday, when the heirs of Standard Oil decided to divest their $860 million philanthropic organization (the Rockefeller Brothers Fund), people took notice. Even they do not want to be morally implicated by the fossil fuel industry!

Ideological bases provide unity to social movements. When we fight for divestment, we stand with campuses, religious institutions and city governments for a single cause: climate justice. A unified political environmental movement already exists—what else brought 310,000 people to the People’s Climate March in New York City last weekend?

Divestment brought the climate movement to the Claremont Colleges and will continue to bring political environmental activism in the future.

Like it or not, the climate movement exists through divestment. Pitzer demonstrated its commitment to climate justice through a comprehensive Fossil Fuel Divestment-Climate Action Model. Perhaps Stanford University’s sacrifices were minimal in its divestment from coal, but at least it supported continued environmental activism.

Rather than criticizing the movement in The Chronicle, Claremont administrators should find ways to support the greatest civil rights issue of our time.

Student organizers are finding multiple paths to address climate change. Claremont Climate Justice is working on campaigns that include effective community investment of Pitzer’s divested funds, scientist-community engagement near Los Angeles fracking wells, climate justice education on campus and partnership with the City of Ontario’s sustainability department.

Divestment is just one of the many things that we do. It won’t go away any time soon. Those students who wish to join us can find us in the Grove House at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays. We’re still here, and onward we go.

Meagan Tokunaga PO ’15 is majoring in public policy analysis with a concentration in environmental analysis. As an intern with 350.org, she helped organize the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign. Rebecca Boorstin PZ ’17 is majoring in psychology and languages and is a member of the Claremont Climate Justice campus education campaign. Christopher Eskilson PZ ’18 is planning to major in English and environmental analysis. He is a member of the Claremont Climate Justice Education task force. 


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