Swarthmore College may be the birthplace of the movement to strip fossil fuel company stocks from university investment portfolios, but students haven’t yet won the fight.
Students at hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities are demanding their schools divest from fossil fuels, or sell off investments in coal, oil and gas companies as a way to combat climate change.
The divestment movement has seen some major successes in the past year, winning support from big names like Archbishop Desmond Tutu and a coal divestment commitment from Stanford University. But outside of Philadelphia, at tiny Swarthmore College, where the very first fossil fuel divestment campaign began about four years ago, students are still trying to make their voices heard.
Grassroots activism at the movement’s birthplace
Student activists just entered their fourth week of a sit-in for divestment outside of Swarthmore’s finance offices.
“We’re asking them to fully divest our endowment, sell off all of our holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies, so coal, oil and gas companies,” said sophomore Stephen O’Hanlon.
The sit-in is targeted at the school’s Board of Managers, which makes investment decisions for the liberal arts college’s $1.9 billion endowment.
“Divestment is a way for our school, as a institution with a lot of social standing and a lot of clout, to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry,” said senior Sara Blazevic.
Climate change activist Bill McKibben, who visited Swarthmore on day eight of the sit-in, explained divestment isn’t meant to stop the flow of cash to well-capitalized energy companies.
“No one’s under the illusion that if Swarthmore or any other college sells its shares in Exxon, that will immediately bankrupt Exxon,” McKibben said. “What it will do is begin the process, further the process, of politically bankrupting them.”
The idea is to create a world where campaign contributions from fossil fuel companies will carry the same stigma as cash from Big Tobacco, “making it much harder for them to dominate our political life the way they have,” McKibben said, and easier for carbon-limiting policies to be enacted.
Early beginnings at Swarthmore
Swarthmore’s divestment movement started in 2011, before any other organization launched a similar campaign, led by a group called Swarthmore Mountain Justice.
“When our campaign started, it was sort of scrappy, it didn’t have a ton of support, we didn’t have a network the way that the divestment movement has a network now, and then it grew really quickly,” Blazevic said.
In 2012, a widely read Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben launched the movement into the national spotlight.
“We went from being a handful of campaigns across the country to literally hundreds,” Blazevic said.
Last week, Syracuse University became the school with the largest endowment to announce it would fully divest. That follows commitments from roughly two dozen other mostly small U.S. schools, according to the Fossil Free campaign of the activist network 350.org.
The movement counted one of its biggest wins last May, when Stanford, which has the fourth-largest endowment in the country, announced it would drop direct investments in coal mining companies.
But most other schools have remained silent on the issue or declined to divest, including Swarthmore in 2013.
“Primarily because we thought divestment would be too costly,” said Swarthmore Board of Managers Chair Gil Kemp.
A 2013 analysis by the board found the school’s $1.9 billion endowment could lose between $11 and $15 million per year in returns if the school divested.
“Those many millions of dollars would, among other things, impact severely our ability to provide needs-blind admission, which is a core value of Swarthmore and absolutely critical to our mission,” Kemp said.
The board argued the symbolic act of divesting would not be effective in reducing the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. Investing in campus energy efficiency would be a better way to fight climate change, Kemp said.
He cited a December commitment of $12 million to make a new campus building carbon-neutral as one example of efforts by the school to reduce its carbon footprint.
“Stigma doesn’t work for fossil fuel companies”
It’s not known how much Swarthmore, or higher education institutions in total, hold in fossil fuel companies, because energy investments are typically comingled with other types of investments and their value is difficult to pinpoint.
A random selection of three schools that recently disclosed fossil fuel investment information, New York University, Bowdoin, and Middlebury, reveals between 1.4 and 5 percent invested in fossil fuels. Endowments at the 500 richest U.S. colleges and universities total nearly 500 billion dollars, according to 2014 figures from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Divestment is a controversial tactic even among those working on climate change policy solutions.
“There are effective ways to fight climate change and there are ineffective ways to fight climate change,” said Andrew Holland, an energy and climate fellow at the Washington, D.C.- based think-tank American Security Project, which researches how climate change impacts national defense.
“I think that the divestment movement fundamentally is looking in the wrong direction.”
A moral argument will not work in an industry with no current, to-scale replacement, he argues.
“Stigma doesn’t work for the fossil fuel companies,” Holland said. “Stigma hasn’t stopped these companies from becoming some of the largest in the world, and frankly it’s the fact they produce a product that all of us need for the current economy.”
College, through the lens of activism
Swarthmore senior Sara Blazevic has heard all these criticisms: she’s been involved with the divestment movement since the beginning of her freshman year.
Over the past four years, as the divestment campaign grew from a small, grassroots push to an international movement and still Swarthmore’s stance didn’t change, Blazevic said there have been moments of frustration.
“Last spring I was sort of coming out of a particularly rough patch in our campaign and feeling really demoralized,” Blazevic said, “and [wasn’t] actually sure whether it was worth it putting in all the hours into keeping [the campaign] going.”
This low point came during finals week. Blazevic was taking a study break when she noticed a video one of her cousins had posted on Facebook.
“It was being shot from a helicopter with a cell phone and at first all I could see was this brown sea,” Blazevic said.
As the helicopter dropped lower, she noticed there were rooftops that seemed to be floating in this brown sea.
“[I noticed] there were people standing on them, and that this was a village that was entirely underwater.”
The footage was of a catastrophic flood in the Balkans last spring, and the people standing on their roofs reminded Blazevic of her own family members who lived in the area. To her, it was a reminder of the risks that vulnerable populations may face if climate change causes the increasingly extreme weather events scientists predict.
“I think for me that was a really pivotal moment, where I was forced to make a choice about whether or not I would….walk away and forget that this was happening and kind of let the campaign peter off, or whether I would allow that to galvanize me,” Blazevic said.
Extended sit-in demands “serious engagement”
Galvanize her it did. Blazevic helped organize Swarthmore’s sit-in, to demand the school’s Board of Managers come back to the negotiating table on the topic of divestment.
On the demonstration’s first day, Swarthmore’s interim president Constance Cain Hungerford issued a statement saying the Board of Managers had already planned on discussing divestment at its May meeting.
More than three weeks later, the students are still sitting in, demanding assurances that the discussion will be “a serious engagement with proposals for divestment” and not just a perfunctory acknowledgement.
By last Tuesday, the hallway outside of the vice president of finance’s office was cluttered with sleeping bags, pillows, an old pizza box and a giant plastic bin full of food.
Well over 100 people had taken shifts sitting and sleeping in the hallway by that time.
Sophomore organizer Stephen O’Hanlon had lost count of exactly how many nights he had slept there.
“It’s not too bad sleeping here, it’s just that we don’t have control over the lights, so there’s like every third light on the hallway is on,” O’Hanlon said, making it difficult to sleep.
“There’s fatigue, I feel tired sometimes, but also I feel really excited about what we’re doing, and I feel like it’s something that’s really important.”
Plenty of student movements begun by earnest college students have ended without the targeted industries batting an eye. But today’s anti-fossil fuel activists claim kinship to the anti-apartheid divestment movement of the 1980s, which also started on college campuses amid choruses of criticisms.
Activists from around the country hope to further raise the profile of this movement starting Sunday, at a week-long series of peaceful demonstrations at Harvard.