Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Divestment at Swarthmore College

I'll be getting into a more nuanced discussion of divestment in a later post, but for now I'm going to post a letter I'm writing to the Swarthmore Bulletin (our alumni magazine).

In response to President Chopp’s “Taking Care of the Land,” in the latest Bulletin, I first want to applaud the College for the steps it has taken to moving towards sustainability on campus. It makes me proud to be a Swattie.

President Chopp briefly addresses the divestment issue that has gotten so much attention recently: “some believe that the College should divest from fossil-fuel companies while others of us think change should come about through activism aimed at long-term policy changes at the state and federal levels.” I completely agree that activism should target policy changes. However, the idea that President Chopp presents that we must choose between divestment and policy activism is the wrong way to proceed: we need both. From my perspective working in international environmental policy in Washington DC, the policy route has stalled out. I attended the Rio +20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development in June. Seeing international leaders avoid taking decisive action on a problem that they all acknowledge was an incredibly frustrating experience. In domestic politics, there is little prospect of climate change legislation becoming law. Divestment and other protest movements can create the momentum that policymakers need in order to affect change.

For context, a recent World Bank report argues that the goal of keeping global warming to 2°C is becoming a lost cause and that 3°C or 4°C is more likely by 2100. Most are probably familiar with the consequences of such extreme warming, but they are worth repeating: sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meters by 2100 and resulting displacement of millions of people, extinction of entire coral reef ecosystems, significant reduction in agricultural productivity, and an increase in the intensity of extreme events amongst other impacts. The report concludes that:

“…there is also no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible. A 4°C world is likely to be one in which communities, cities and countries would experience severe disruptions, damage, and dislocation, with many of these risks spread unequally. It is likely that the poor will suffer most and the global community could become more fractured, and unequal than today.”

Relying on national governments to solve this problem is going to result in a 4°C world. If change is going to happen, it will have to come from the bottom-up. Given Swarthmore’s reputation and endowment size, divestment is the perfect way for the institution to make an impact. President Obama is signaling that he wants to do something on climate change, but he needs to know that there will be political cost if he doesn’t.

I haven’t had much money since graduating in 2007 and have given inconsistently to Swarthmore. Peace Corps and grad school aren’t exactly big money makers. But five years out of Swarthmore, I finally have a job that provides me financial stability and I want to give back to the College. However, I don’t want to see that money invested in companies whose actions are so harmful.

Thanks to generous alumni like Eugene Lang, Swarthmore has an ample endowment and other resources that made my college experience an amazing one. I had life-changing teachers and access to wonderful facilities; I also received enough financial aid from Swarthmore that I was able to avoid taking out loans for my education. I understand that divestment would likely be costly and the last thing I’d want is to reduce the quality of the experience for any future Swatties. How much would divestment cost? Maybe it’s not an easy question to answer, but I’d like to see estimates from Swarthmore before the idea is rejected out of hand. I believe that there are enough alumni out there who would be willing to give more to make up the difference. I think asking alumni to participate would get an overwhelming response and create enormous goodwill for the school.

That’s how I hope Swarthmore sees divestment: as an opportunity. It’s a chance to take a moral stand on one of the biggest issues of our time. It’s a chance to support our students as they learn about social activism. It’s a chance to be a leader among prestigious colleges and create momentum for a stagnant movement. It’s a chance to engage alumni. And it’s a chance to make an impression on all the 2017 specs who are writing their “Why Swarthmore” essays. If the College divested, it would certainly reaffirm why I chose Swarthmore.

1 comment:

  1. I dont understand why divestment would cause Swarthmore any financial hardship. I see this as an opportunity for a progressive institution to be a leader in changing American priorities when considering economic personal interests. As we have a strong representative democracy, our government will not act until the will of the people is known. Its not enough to just advocate change while continuing to support the agents in need of that change. Swarthmore can be part of the solution or continue to be part of the problem. Good job, Duncan.