In 1986, as a result of a movement originating on college campuses, the federal government of the United States passed legislation implementing a policy of divestment from South Africa, effectively forcing the South African government to negotiate the end of apartheid.
Now, the Claremont Colleges Divestment Team is using the same divestment strategy to take on the fossil fuel industry by persuading the 5Cs to divest their respective endowments from fossil fuel companies in the next five years.
In light of the campaign’s recent buildup, the Claremont Colleges Sustainability Coalition, the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC), the Pomona Student Union (PSU), and Sustainable Claremont hosted a forum Monday, Feb. 11 to discuss the campaign’s progress and potential successes and failures of the divestment movement.
The 5C Divestment Campaign is part of a national movement sponsored by 350.org, an online grassroots campaign aiming to create and implement solutions to global climate change, but the local movement on campus is student-driven.
The forum featured a panel consisting of Divestment Team co-leader Jess Grady-Benson PZ ’14, Pomona energy economics professor John Jurewitz, Pomona politics professor Heather Williams, Harvey Mudd College political science and environmental policy professor Paul Steinberg, and Claremont McKenna College economics professor William Ascher.
To begin the forum, each speaker was allotted four minutes to make opening remarks. In her speech, Grady-Benson outlined the moral argument in favor of divestment, stating that divesting would be a reflection of the values supported by the 5Cs.
“As institutions known for taking action to confront issues of social responsibility and sustainability, it is inconsistent and hypocritical of the Claremont Colleges to remain invested in fossil fuels,” Grady-Benson said. “Divestment is not simply a symbolic action, but an opportunity to actualize these core values and stand out as leaders in environmental and social responsibility.”
Jurewitz offered a differing perspective, stating that he personally viewed the divestment campaign as “largely symbolic and quixotic,” and he added that the divestment campaign should be restructured to include more pragmatic, impactful ideas.
“At a minimum, I think this effort needs to be politically repackaged by the 5Cs and supplemented with far more substantive and effective initiatives,” Jurewitz said.
Jurewitz proposed his own five-point plan that outlines a more drastic strategy for combating environmental dangers.
The first two points, which Jurewitz classified as “bare minimum” efforts, are to 1) aggressively pursue all energy efficiency measures on campus, including buying renewable energy credits, and 2) pursue and achieve a net zero carbon campus, including personal automobile use and airline flights. These measures, Jurewitz argued, would give the divestment campaign the political credibility it needs to make an impact.
Jurewitz’s final three points included launching an initiative to get all California campuses on board with cutting emissions and pursuing energy efficiency, sponsoring and pursuing an initiative to rebalance the federal tax system to target carbon emissions, and finally rebalancing the 5Cs endowment portfolios where possible.
Williams agreed with the idea that divestment should be only part of the total strategy to attack the fossil fuel industry, but she added that the moral argument behind divestment is considerable.
“Morally, I think you’re right. Tactically speaking, consider that this campaign singularly pursued may be folly,” Williams said.
Steinberg added that, historically speaking, students have had tremendous impact on major social, political, and environmental movements, and the divestment campaign is no different.
“Let there be no doubt that students can change the course of history. The historical record is very clear on this,” Steinberg said.
Grady-Benson responded to the points by Williams and Jurewitz by expanding on Steinberg’s comments, stating that students have a distinctive capacity to create political momentum.
“Students have an incredible amount of unique power to create change politically and to drive political momentum toward larger change, even if it starts with very simple actions,” Grady-Benson said.
Ultimately, the panel members agreed that divestment is only a step toward effecting significant change in our national dependence on fossil fuels. Grady-Benson added, however, that the 5C divestment campaign aims to be the first domino to fall in a national, paradigm-shifting movement.
“We don’t think that withdrawing $3 billion of the collective colleges’ endowments is going to hurt the bottom line of the fossil industry. That’s completely ignorant. But we do believe that there’s going to be a huge domino effect from that movement, and from the united network that we’ve created with over 200 schools across the nation,” Grady-Benson said.
On Friday, Feb. 15, there will be a student sit-in at 2:30 p.m. outside of Pitzer College’s administration office as Grady-Benson presents a divestment plan to the investment committee of the Pitzer Board of Trustees.