The 5C divestment campaign broke new ground this spring when the Associated Students of Pomona College (ASPC) announced their intention to include a referendum on the April 9 election ballot to determine whether the student body favors divesting the college endowment from fossil fuel companies.
Apart from the school-wide vote April 9, ASPC is also considering drafting its own resolution in response to divestment, and other student organizations have taken steps to minimize their environmental impact.
The ASPC Senate joins student governments at other universities, including Harvard University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in proposing a student ballot question about divestment. Last November, Harvard became the first college in the United States to express its support of divestment via a student referendum question. Seventy-two percent of the student body voted in favor of the referendum.
“That number became a national indicator of the fact that students are concerned with these issues. It definitely put Harvard on the map in terms of press coverage, so we hope that this vote, if it passes, will draw media attention to the Claremont Colleges,” Jess Grady-Benson PZ ’14 said.
At UNC Chapel Hill, 77 percent of students expressed support for divestment. In a random online survey of 5C students conducted by TSL last month, 40 percent of respondents said they support divestment, eight percent said they do not support divestment, and 52 percent responded that they did not know whether they support divestment.
Grady-Benson is one of two 5C students currently interning with 350.org, a grassroots organization created by Bill McKibben. Grady-Benson is regarded by many as one of the unofficial leaders of the divestment campaign. She hopes that the ASPC referendum will not only pass but will also exceed Harvard’s 72 percent majority.
Meagan Tokunaga PO ’15, one of the co-organizers of the campaign, said that she wants to stress to students that the vote is to push the administration to consider divestment and force the Board of Trustees to consider action.
“With this vote, we hope to have a concrete number showing that the students are on board with divestment,” Tokunaga said. “We really hope to demonstrate the college’s value of climate change as a priority and show the public that students really do care about the world we’re inheriting.”
A vote on the potential Senate resolution has not yet been agreed upon. If it occurs, ASPC will join the Pitzer College student senate, which voted in favor of divestment in January, in taking a stance on the issue. According to Lena Connor PO ’13, ASPC’s Commissioner for Environmental Affairs, some Pomona senators have concerns about whether it is appropriate for the student government to have a definitive position. However, if a resolution is drafted, Connor says it will be longer and more “nuanced” than the student ballot referendum question.
“It’s supposed to be a more holistic resolution that looks at not only divestment,” Connor said.
If approved, the resolution will contain three different climate change initiatives. The first is a call for Pomona to divest within five years. The second initiative draws attention to a promise President David Oxtoby made at a conference several years ago to eventually turn Pomona into a carbon-neutral institution and requests that he set a concrete deadline by which carbon neutrality will occur.
The third initiative proposes that the college adopt a green revolving fund. Such a policy would involve augmenting energy efficiency on campus and increasing on-campus sources of renewable energy in a cost-efficient manner. The money saved by such measures would then be invested in further sustainability projects. Green revolving funds have been implemented at many prominent colleges and universities, including Harvard, Stanford University, Boston University, and the California Institute of Technology.
ASPC President Sarah Appelbaum PO ’13 said that the student vote and the Senate vote, if successful, will hold different types of weight.
“I think they serve different purposes … I think it will be more significant for the administration, when considering divestment, that the students of Pomona College voted in favor versus the student government voting in favor,” Appelbaum said. “The Senate resolution would be additional; it would involve the student government also taking a stance on what we think should happen.”
She noted that there is no guarantee a divestment resolution would pass a Senate vote, since senators hold differing opinions.
There has been some minor discussion about the divestment of ASPC’s own funds. However, Senate decided that this was not a priority since most of its funds are already invested in a socially responsible manner. Of ASPC’s $322,000 endowment, $234,000 is invested in socially responsible investment firms. Senate loaned $61,000 to the college administration this year to install high-efficiency LED light bulbs in Bridges Auditorium, which will be paid back, and the final $18,000 is kept in cash reserves.
Appelbaum said that ASPC’s funds are managed by accountant Duncan Meaney, who ensures that they are invested in socially responsible businesses such as green energy firms. Much of Senate’s endowment is currently invested in solar power.
“If we are involved in fossil fuels companies, they do renewable energy as well,” Appelbaum said.
Connor noted that if the Pomona administration eventually decides to divest its own resources, divestment of ASPC funds might find its way onto the agenda once more.
“If the administration makes a move to divest endowment funds, we should respect and honor that by looking into our own funds,” Connor said.
ASPC is not the only student organization on campus responding to the stirrings of climate change action. Several weeks ago, the Pomona Student Union (PSU) passed a resolution to go carbon-neutral, starting as soon as this year. Connor, who is the outgoing Vice President of Outreach, decided to draft the constitutional amendment in light of the ongoing dialogue about divestment.
“We fly in so many speakers each year that we have a considerable amount of CO2 emissions,” Connor said.
Connor listed two steps the organization will take to meet its carbon neutrality pledge. First, PSU will attempt to bring in more local speakers in order to mitigate the number of high-emission plane rides it pays for each year.
“If we are considering two speakers, one in New York and one in L.A., we’ll obviously go for the one that would produce the smaller carbon footprint,” Connor said.
Second, PSU will calculate its total carbon emissions at the end of each year and buy carbon offsets from a responsible firm to balance them out. Throughout the year, all event planners will be required to figure out the carbon footprint of their speakers’ transportation through an online calculator and record the number in a logbook so the Executive Board will know how many offsets to purchase at the year’s end. Connor said the process should not be very expensive, given the organization’s current emissions.
Carbon offsets are often criticized as propaganda tools that serve only to deflect environmental responsibility. Connor said she recognizes that concern but believes that, combined with the selection of more local speakers, they are the best way for PSU to take action against climate change without compromising its mission.
“Carbon offsets aren’t the final solution … but the PSU is also very committed to bringing in a diversity of speakers and broadening perspectives, and sometimes that involves bringing in speakers from distant locations,” she said.