EDITORIAL BOARD: On fossil fuel divestment, it’s still 2013

Factory buildings spout polluting fumes into the air.
Pomona must divest its endowment from fossil fuels without delay, writes the Editorial Board. (Courtesy: Gerry Machen via Flickr)

The CDC warned about a new coronavirus. We streamed the latest Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande. Will Smith infuriated pop culture critics.

Those are three things that happened in 2013. Here’s one more: nine years ago this month, “78 percent of Pomona’s student body voted in favor of an ASPC Senate resolution in support of divesting its endowment funds from fossil fuel conglomerates.”

You’ll understand if we’re confused what year it is. This week, 88 percent of Pomona College’s student body voted for a similar resolution, along with an additional 96 percent in favor of asking the school’s trustees simply to disclose the amount of the endowment invested in fossil fuels.

So flash back to nine years ago, when this newspaper’s editorial board at the time warned that “the vote poses little impetus for the school to enact change and gives little to no actual pressure to force a Board of Trustees vote in favor of divestment.” 

What happened next?

About five months after that vote, Pomona’s trustees decided not to divest, based on a warning from its financial consultants that withdrawing from comingled or separately managed funds could result in millions of dollars’ worth of decreased investment performance. 

Seven months after that, Pitzer College’s trustees unanimously came to the opposite conclusion, pulling “more than 99 percent” of its then-$125 million endowment out of fossil fuel funds. 

Ten months went by. The Divest Pomona organization presented yet again to Pomona’s trustees. Then-President David Oxtoby decided that a new financial review of the impact of divestment was unnecessary.

We could go on. But here are some other things that have happened since April 2013: Increasingly uncontrollable wildfires across our state killed dozens of people, incinerating towns and forests. Four of the most destructive hurricanes in history devastated the Atlantic coast. Just a month ago, the latest United Nations IPCC report warned that our failure to end fossil fuel production and consumption in the coming decades will lead to catastrophic impacts on world hunger, water scarcity, extreme weather and species extinction.

The Claremont Colleges’ central mission, to create the next generation of scholars and leaders, is incompatible with a future in which those young adults do not inherit a world they can study and lead. No amount of financial gain can offset the economic, ecological and moral loss that will occur if we fail to act. 

We knew that nine years ago. Thanks to the inaction of the officials and trustees that have continued to serve even as generations of students have come and gone, we’re nine years behind now. 

Proponents and opponents of divestment argued back in 2013 that the move was “symbolic.” That may have been true then, but at a time when at least $186 billion of university endowment funding has now been separated from the fossil fuel industry, the impact is more and more tangible by the day. Every dollar counts, but those dollars count a lot.

Harvard has managed to set aside its financial concerns and divest. So have the University of California and the California State University systems. The higher education sector’s momentum will make a bigger and bigger difference as it grows, and at this point, it is embarrassing for the 5Cs not to have the courage to join their peers.

The new student demand in this year’s referendum, for disclosure in addition to divestment, is a helpful step. It shows that transparent dialogue is needed on this issue — specifically, that the actual people who govern Pomona, Scripps College, Claremont McKenna College and Harvey Mudd College need to answer for the decisions they have made by authorizing fossil fuel investments year after year. 

But we are now left asking the same question we asked in 2013: What, tangibly, can this round of student activists do to see the change manifest? 

At the next meeting of Pomona’s trustees in May, we’ll find out whether the growing signs of impending climate disaster are enough for the college’s leaders to do their part. If not, something else will have to work.

TSL’s editorial board is comprised of its editor-in-chief and two managing editors, and does not necessarily represent the views of other TSL staff members.

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