Divestment: Shifting the Focus From Prospects to Reality

Over the past month, TSL has published a spirited exchange between members of the first-year class about the issue of Pomona College’s divestment from the fossil fuel industry. As a Pomona alumnus who recently completed my Ph.D. in climate science at Stanford University, I am delighted that divestment is grabbing attention and creating vigorous debate. And as a child of Alaska who once watched nearby glaciers erode in every direction, I feel compelled to add my voice to the chorus demanding change.

I will not belabor the case for immediate action on climate change; thankfully, as a college we already stand essentially united about the gravity of the climate crisis. President Oxtoby has repeated its urgency even as the college has demurred over divestment. To those who remain unconvinced about the severity of climate change, I point you to this article by Bill McKibben, the clearest statement of our generation’s defining challenge that I have encountered in my years of climate research.

Any discussion of fossil fuel divestment at an institution of higher learning must start from this fundamental hypocrisy: Our colleges and universities are touting a mission of preparing us to thrive in the future, while simultaneously profiting off an industry that is actively endangering our future. This conflicting position is simply untenable, and it is catalyzing student action around the nation. This hypocrisy will taint every statement of Pomona’s core values until divestment is done. 

In his March 27 piece, Pablo Ordóñez suggests that rather than divesting, Pomona should “engage directly with the fossil fuel companies to set standards for sustainability.”  The April 10 response from Eliza Burke and Isaac Harris was spot-on in pointing out that the very nature of fossil fuel extraction is fundamentally unsustainable, making “standards for sustainability” meaningless in this context.

I will take the response one step further. It is important for Pomona’s students to recognize that fossil fuel corporations cannot be persuaded, reasoned with or bargained with; our hope cannot be placed in them to change their practices. As with all corporations, they have one function and one function alone: to generate profits. As Naomi Klein points out in her excellent book This Changes Everything, three decades of “coddling conservatives” and attempts to find palatable, market-based solutions have altogether failed. 

As they have repeatedly shown, fossil fuel corporations will continue extracting dirtier, more extreme fuels despite the warnings of every major scientific organization in the world; despite the screams of protestors seeking to protect their lands; despite the floods of Bangladesh and the swallowing of the Maldives; despite catastrophic spills and explosions; despite the fires and droughts of the American West; despite the superstorms and ice sheet collapses and species extinctions. They will certainly continue extracting despite any effort Pomona might make to “engage directly with them.” 

We cannot work with the fossil fuel industry to create climate change solutions. Rather, the solution lies in delegitimizing these corporations and the current economic system that they largely created and from which they continue to reap massive profits. That delegitimization—the growing effort to undermine the public credibility of the fossil fuel-based economy—is where divestment comes in.

Pomona must divest from fossil fuels. With recent high-profile divestment action from Stanford, Syracuse and the University of Maine, the divestment movement is primed to truly sweep the nation. This action is especially timely in light of the much-anticipated United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris this coming winter, an event considered to be the greatest chance for far-reaching and legally binding climate change action since Copenhagen in 2009.

Pomona should be a leader in the divestment movement, not be pulled into the future kicking and screaming. Pomona can no longer hide behind the prospect of lost revenues—many other institutions have taken the great moral stand of divestment without significant financial hardship. The investment alternatives are there, and the moral imperative for divestment only grows. Among the nation’s top-rated colleges with one of the highest per-student endowments, Pomona is in a position to make a true difference in the climate movement. The time is now.

Zachary Brown PO ’07 recently received his Ph.D. in climate science at Stanford University, and is working to create an institute for education and research in remote Alaska.