An Open Response to Pomona’s Rejection of Divestment

A little more than a month ago, President David Oxtoby announced on behalf of the Board of Trustees that Pomona College will not be considering divestment from fossil fuel companies. We regret that, unlike at Pitzer College, our administration did not involve students in the decision-making process. Closing the door on divestment silences the dialogue that President Oxtoby himself acknowledges to be so important. We understand that the issue is complex, but we believe this decision is ultimately short-sighted. Divestment is a powerful tactic to shift the social paradigm and engage a political system that is moving too slowly, with tragic consequences.

President Oxtoby mentioned briefly the immense challenge that climate change poses to humanity now and to future generations, but we feel it is worth pausing to consider what we are truly facing. Continuing with business as usual means upwards of a 4°C (7.2°F) rise in average global temperature by 2100; this translates to a 10°C (18°F) rise on land (World Bank report, Nov. 2012) and a climate change cost of $400 trillion (Nature journal study, July 2013). The mounting costs of climate change are not borne by bank accounts alone, but in the form of shattered homes, desiccated crops, and undeserved deaths, as climate change exacerbates struggles over potable water and fertile land. In the words of the World Bank, “The projected 4°C warming simply must not be allowed to occur—the heat must be turned down.”

Rising temperatures affect us all, but the problem is much more immediate to some. Divestment takes aim at the top 200 fossil fuel extractors because carbon emissions are not the only form of climate injustice. To the communities who live by coal plants in Texas, mountaintop removal sites in West Virginia, Superfund sites in the Inland Empire, fracking sites in Ohio and Pennsylvania, or around the Alberta Tar sands in Canada, climate action is not just about costs and emissions. Every day, these people suffer the consequences of the maliciousness of the fossil fuel industry: cancer rates that are significantly higher than average, polluted water, contaminated air, and degraded land. It is time for us to stop profiting from the destruction of these people’s lives, not to mention the destruction of our future.   

President Oxtoby stated, “It also remains unclear that divestment would have anything more than a symbolic impact in fighting climate change.” This implies that symbolism is not worth much. We counter that politics trades in symbolism. Why did A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others organize the 1963 March on Washington, the march that led up to MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech, if not for symbolic effect? The crucial role of symbolism in pushing for broader policy changes has gone unacknowledged by President Oxtoby. We believe divestment coming from Pomona College would have far-reaching symbolic power.

Divestment works. Divestment campaigns in the past have targeted industries such as tobacco, apartheid in South Africa, and arms manufacturing. Archbishop Desmond Tutu personally praised the anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s as a key factor in the defeat of the South African apartheid regime. According to a report from the University of Oxford, “In every case we reviewed, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.” Divestment is most powerful in its ability to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry, which is necessary to erode its influence over American politics and the economy. By the sheer power of rapid mobilization, divestment is changing the public discourse, providing the outcry necessary to put climate change issues on policy agendas. In a span of months, the fossil fuel divestment campaign is already present in over 500 institutions worldwide.

Pomona College has been focused for the past 40 years on making local changes and creating, as President Oxtoby noted, “a campus culture where sustainability is a real priority.” This shows in efforts like the Sustainability Integration Office (SIO), the Organic Farm, the solar panels on Lincoln-Edmunds, and a proposal for carbon neutrality.But given the scope of global climate change, Pomona’s emissions are a drop in the bucket. Localized actions are necessary but insufficient; we need national and global carbon reduction plans—specifically, policies that hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for their damage to humans and the environment. This is where Pomona’s strength as a respected college comes in—our social and financial footprints are large compared to our carbon footprint. Any changes we make to offset our carbon emissions are minimal compared to the impact that divestment could have on national dialogue and politics.  

While we acknowledge that divestment has a price, we question the methodology that our financial consultant Cambridge Associates used to project the cost. Cambridge estimates that over the past 15 years, the performance difference between our endowment and several broad-based indexes amounted to about two percent. This difference was used to estimate that if we were to divest now, we would forgo $485 million of growth over the next 10 years. Two points of uncertainty stand out. First, Cambridge assumes that divestment necessitates that we invest passively in a broad-based index. The very point of the negotiable five-year time frame that we presented allows for a gradual movement away from funds that contain fossil fuels. Such a transition is possible because there are a growing number of fossil-free funds as more cities, states, and colleges divest. Second, to compare our actively invested portfolio that contains many commingled funds and alternative investments to a passive broad-based index is an apples-to-oranges comparison. Both of these assumptions, as well as Cambridge’s stake in keeping our business, cast doubt on the validity of the figures in the report.  

In any case, the cost of divestment may be significant. But so too is the cost of delayed climate action to future Sagehens and humanity. History shows that those in power do not cede their power willingly: Real commitment and sacrifice is needed to shift social paradigms and national politics. Pomona is uniquely positioned to take such a stand.

Furthermore, President Oxtoby expressed concern that divesting would pose a threat to Pomona’s financial aid programs. We clarify that we would not accept a divestiture that would lead to a decrease in financial aid; many of us are here because of the fantastic aid packages that Pomona provides. However, we believe that the reduced growth that may come with divestment (resulting in an endowment in the worst case of only $2.25 billion) could be borne by the college without compromising the quality of our programs, the experience of future Sagehens, or financial aid. In short, the only way that divestment would affect financial aid is if Pomona lets it.  

As an educational institution, it is our responsibility and obligation to live up to the values we teach in a meaningful and effective way. Let us pursue these ideals with action, for in the wise words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “Human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” In the face of climate change, efforts to reduce emissions on campus are not enough if we are, as we claim, a leader in sustainability. Divestment is the strongest action Pomona College can take now to initiate necessary political change in the United States and the world. The call for serious climate legislation has been echoed for decades, most recently by Yeb Sano, Filipino representative at the U.N. Climate Meetings in Warsaw, who has committed to fast until a serious climate action plan is undertaken. We, the Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, continue to demand that Pomona College freeze new investments and divest from the top 200 fossil fuel extractors in five years.

The Claremont Colleges Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign was established in 2012 and promotes the divestment of the 5Cs’ endowments from companies that produce, refine, and distribute fossil fuels. 

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