What’s a Commitment? — Drumpf, Mount Holyoke, and the Paris Climate Accord

On June 1, 2017 Mr. Drumpf announced that the United States would renege on their commitment to the Paris Climate Accord. Despite the flaws in the Paris Climate Accord 1,2, the current administration’s decision is disheartening for people around the globe and shows its blatant disregard for human existence on the planet. “Our collective future and that of much of the rest of life on Earth depends in part on confronting climate change” said Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at the Oregon State University and former administrator of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration3. The CJC agreeswe must take serious, meaningful  climate action now if we have any chance of staying below the internationally agreed upon 2°C threshold for global temperature rise. Though the Accord does little to regulate high emitters and hold them legally accountable for their destructive actions, it does create global dialogue about the urgency of international climate action that hasn’t happened before.

In his speech, Drumpf called the United States ‘the world’s leader in environmental protection’. Yet his disregard for the Accord, negligence towards investing in renewable energy, protection of clean air and water, and overall dismissal of the scientific legitimacy of climate change marks the United States as not a leader in environmental protection, but rather a leader in pollution. Even if the federal government refuses to lead, citizens, local governments, and institutions like Mount Holyoke can and must continue their efforts in environmental stewardship. Beyond this, we must make extra effort to push current standards towards being more serious and organize meaningful actions which will make large-scale impacts.

Hundreds of local and state government leaders, heads of colleges and universities, businesses, and investors have signed the open letter, We Are Still In4. Signatories, the press release states, understand that the United States’ clean energy transition is an opportunity, not a liability. Signatories are in favor of “American leadership on climate change,” and the statement “embraces this rapidly growing movement of subnational and civil society leaders.” The CJC is delighted to find that Acting President Sonya Stevens, on behalf of Mount Holyoke College, signed the letter as an institution of Higher Learning! We hope this demonstrates an intent to follow through and consistently support new and existing projects for sustainability.

With these climate change and sustainability initiatives, CJC continues to demand transparency, accountability, and follow-through from the administration. The Mount Holyoke College community has several avenues by which we can take action against climate change, including making changes to sustainability initiatives and organizations, the College’s status on investment in the fossil fuel industry, ecology and environmental departments, and climate justice activism. We ask that this signature not be an empty promise.

As each day passes, taking action against climate change becomes more urgent. Leaders at every level shape our future directly with the strategies they implement. When announcing that the US will be pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, Mr. Drumpf cited the risk to the American economy as a reason for not pledging to reduce carbon emissions5. His decision to commit to the coal and oil industries affects how Americans understand climate change in the context of their lives. However, fighting climate change by investing in renewable energy and shifting away from fossil fuel reliance will benefit the American economy by reducing energy costs and creating sustainable jobs.

The way the current federal administration communicates their stance on the Paris Climate Accord and Drumpf’s enthusiasm for coal is similar to how the Mount Holyoke administration has communicated their stance on fossil fuel investments. Drumpf painted the Paris Climate Accord out as threat to American jobs, which strikes at the core of the working and middle class who seek financial stability. The Mount Holyoke Board painted fossil fuel divestment as a threat to the College’s finances which will in turn harm financial aid, again threatening those who need assistance in order to attend Mount Holyoke. Both of these threats are unfounded.

Drumpf’s arguments for pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord do not hold true with what the Accord states. The Accord is non-bindingeach country sets its own goals and there is no enforcement mechanism for those who do not meet their own goals. There is no penalty for those who do not contribute equitably to the Green Climate Fund, and the Accord does not require the US to shut down coal-fired power plants, seeing as it doesn’t even mention coal. In terms of the strength of the American job market, pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord will cause more harm than good. In January, China canceled plans to build 103 coal-fired power plants6 and has plans to invest $361 billion into renewable energy by 2020, which will create over 13 million jobs7. Countries which make serious investments in renewable energy now are at the forefront of the industry of the future. Countries which do not will fall woefully behind. Similarly, any institutions who remain invested in the fossil fuel industry forfeit their ability to be environmental leaders, regardless of any other initiatives they have planned.

After their vote on divestment, the Mount Holyoke Board of Trustees published a statement8 informing the community of their decision to remain invested in the fossil fuel industry. In this statement, the Trustees contradict themselves by saying that the College’s indirect investments in fossil fuels are small, but divesting from fossil fuels would require ‘liquidating’ more than a third of the endowment. They then elaborate on the consequences of altering endowment investments:

“Putting our endowment at risk means putting our mission at risk. Nearly 80 percent of our students receive direct scholarship assistance, and this is made possible by our endowment. The endowment also funds many other mission-critical activities, including our ability to attract world-class faculty. It supports every aspect of the College’s operations, the Academic Centers, the Art Museum and Athletics.”

By associating fossil fuel divestment with negative impact on financial aid and education, the Board is scaring community members who don’t fully understand the workings of college investments and the endowment. About half of all CJC members receive some sort of financial aid. None of us would support anything that would hinder our ability to receive education. The CJC’s ask demands divestment over a period of five years, which may be subject to change if the Board requires more time to sort out investments. However, based on our discussions with administrators, the timeline of divestment does not seem to be what’s holding them back from voting to pull our investments from portfolios containing fossil fuels. Regardless of the timeline of divestment, by remaining invested in fossil fuels, the College makes a weak stance on climate change and empty commitments to environmental stewardship.

Divesting from fossil fuels is the right economic decision, so why is the Board evading this change? Like the US administration, the Mount Holyoke Trustees are focused on profiting as much as possible in the present. Although the coal industry is clearly suffering, Drumpf sees a future in ‘clean coal’. Mount Holyoke administrators have expressed open minds about reinvesting in coal, should the College’s fund managers find promising coal investments.

The college has never truly committed to environmental stewardship. By signing on to a statement with other institutions to lead climate action, the college has made a promise it needs to fulfill. Unless the profit-first mentality is eradicated and until the college divests and acts on sustainability goals, Mount Holyoke remains complicit in the deplorable inaction of the US government.

When an institution cares for its image as environmentally conscious more than it cares to contribute to efforts in the pursuit of climate justice, its environmentalism rings hollow. In reality, Mount Holyoke is behind; many schools had the equivalent to the Sustainability Task Force years ago. Changing light bulbs, recycling, and composting were never radical solutions. These strategies have been suggested and used for decades. The major threat we face due to climate change demands large-scale, system-altering actions.

By stating that “we are still in,” Mount Holyoke commits to honor the wishes of its constituents. Community members have repeatedly spoken out for climate activism. Time will tell whether Mount Holyoke is truly separate from the US administration it has chastised.

  1. US Needs to Recognize Serious Flaws in Paris Climate Pact, The Hill, 13 May, 2017. http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/333149-us-needs-to-recognize-serious-flaws-in-paris-climate
  2. COP21: The Ambitions and Flaws of the Paris Agreement, International Policy Digest, 13 December, 2017. https://intpolicydigest.org/2015/12/13/cop21-the-ambitions-and-flaws-of-the-paris-agreement/
  3. How Scientists Reacted to the US Leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, Scientifc American, 2 June, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-scientists-reacted-to-the-u-s-leaving-the-paris-climate-agreement/
  4. http://wearestillin.com/
  5. Transcript: President Donald Trump’s Paris Climate Accord exit speech, Chicago Sun-Times, 2 June, 2017. http://chicago.suntimes.com/politics/transcript-trump-paris-climate-accord-exit-speech/
  6. China Cancels 103 Coal Plants, Mindful of Smog and Wasted Capacity, The New York Times, 18 January, 2017.  https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/world/asia/china-coal-power-plants-pollution.html
  7. China to Plow $361 billion into Renewable Fuel by 2020, Reuters, 5 January, 2017. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-energy-renewables-idUSKBN14P06P
  8. Board of Trustees Announces Decision on Divestment Following Thorough Review, Mount Holyoke College, 13 April, 2017. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/financial/board-trustees-announces-decision-divestment-following-thorough-review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s