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

Mount Holyoke’s Convenient Conviction – A History of Divestment Decisions

Mount_Holyoke_Women_Protest_Apartheid_in_South_Africa.jpg

[image: Mount Holyoke students holding signs at a protest calling for divestment from South African apartheid in 1985. Signs read: “We want no part of profits from South Africa! Our community votes No! MHC Divest Now!” and “MHC oppose apartheid”]

This Thursday, February 23, 2017, the Board of Trustees will be meeting for the second time this academic year. The Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition requested to know whether the Board would be discussing fossil fuel divestment, but we were told that the Board prefers not to inform students of what will be discussed at the meeting beforehand. This lack of transparency is nothing new to our campaign or the student body at large.

In 1985, the Mount Holyoke College Board of Trustees voted to divest Mount Holyoke’s endowment from South African stock in order to protest apartheid. The Board of Trustees made their decision after years of relentless organizing by students, including former President Lynn Pasquerella, class of 1980. By deciding to divest, the Board of Trustees agreed with students that investments are political acts with real consequences. It set an influential precedent by publicly acknowledging the ethics bound in our endowment. The act of divesting intrinsically politicized the College’s endowment and its investments.

On April 6, 2015, five members of the Climate Justice Coalition (CJC) – Daphne Chang ‘16, Kayla Smith ‘16, Julia Worcester ‘17, Raven Geiger ‘17, and Shannon Paton ‘18 – met with President Pasquerella, members of the Investment Committee, and representatives from Cambridge Associates, an external group that manages the College’s endowment. The purpose of this meeting was to learn more about the significance of the endowment and the College’s investments in relation to the financial health of the institution.

At this meeting, members of the Investment Committee – including Committee Chair Elizabeth A. Palmer ‘76 – told us that Mount Holyoke College reinvested our endowment in South African apartheid in 1991. We were told that on September 16, 1991 the Investment Committee sent a memo to the Board and Finance Committee outlining the financial damage that divestment from apartheid had done to the College’s endowment. According to the College’s investors who compared Mount Holyoke’s endowment with a hypothetical portfolio including stocks in South Africa, the endowment reportedly lost $5.4 million in “opportunity cost” throughout the period of divestment. To our knowledge, the Board made the choice to reinvest without consulting or informing the many factions of the Mount Holyoke community who fought for divestment in the first place. Ultimately, the decision occurred after a period of six years – after the student activists who fought for divestment graduated. As of 1991, the violently racist South African apartheid regime was still in power, so a reinvestment decision reflects a support of these racist beliefs by the Board of Trustees.*

In their presentation at our meeting, the members of the Investment Committee referenced reinvestment in apartheid in order to demonstrate to us the financial risks of divestment in general and in regards to current discussions on fossil fuel divestment. According to Kayla Smith ‘16, who was in attendance, “not only was it revealed that Mount Holyoke’s endowment was reinvested in the apartheid regime after their much-celebrated divestment, but that the Board members spoke as though they regretted divesting in the first place by citing the amount of money lost.”

The presenter did not seem to understand that reinvestment, if it did in fact occur, was not simply a financial decision – it was also a political and moral one.

“Now that the issue of divestment has been raised, there is no choice that can be made that is not political. To divest means that the College will make a political decision to oppose publicly the economic decisions it regards as destructive. To not divest means that the College will make a political decision that economic returns are more important that opposing those destructive activities… The question for the College is which decision is most consistent with its mission and values,” to quote Professor of International Politics, Emeritus Vinnie Ferraro in a statement he wrote exploring the parallels between Mount Holyoke’s apartheid and fossil fuel divestment campaigns.

CJC members have since attempted to confirm whether Mount Holyoke College actually reinvested its endowment in companies supporting South African apartheid. Unfortunately, our members have been unable to access the Board’s official meeting records that would confirm what we were told during the April 2015 meeting. The Board of Trustees has an obligation to all students to come forward with clarification and an explanation.

The entire Mount Holyoke community was reminded of the Board’s lack of direct transparency last March 7th, 2016, when we were notified of a $2,560 tuition increase through only two sentences buried in the sixteenth line of a fifty-nine line, eleven paragraph email. As long as the Board continues to prevent the students, faculty, and alumnae of the College from accessing financial decisions in a timely and accessible manner, there will not be sufficient accountability, transparency, and assurance that the Board won’t make unethical financial choices in the future.

“Fiduciary responsibility does not preclude ethical choices.” Professor Ferraro shares our sentiment in this statement. The moral implications of apartheid reinvestment are unconscionable. Choosing to remain invested in the industry that is primarily responsible for potentially catastrophic climate change—which disproportionately impacts women, children, and minorities—aligns ourselves with fossil fuels and is reprehensible. Mount Holyoke needs to refrain from repeating its collapse of conviction by acknowledging the global impact of our investments and realigning them to fit the College’s mission.

Regardless of the Investment Committee’s prioritization of profit over morals, our investments remain political. The flows of capital overlay and constitute violent systems of power. Now is the time for Mount Holyoke College to be the “changemakers” we claim to be, to make another moral decision, and to proudly stand on the right side of history without wavering. In the case of climate change, the consequences are dire, complex, and difficult to overcome. When the Board of Trustees votes to divest from fossil fuels, our community must keep the College accountable to ensure that reinvestment does not reoccur.

 

*The original published version of this article did not include explicit commentary on the violently racist practices of the apartheid regime. We have edited the piece to more accurately reflect our moral stance. For more information on South African apartheid, visit: x and x (warning: potentially graphic and disturbing descriptions and images of anti-black violence).

Post-Election Statement – Climate Justice Coalition

Fuck Donald Trump.

As individuals and as an org, the Climate Justice Coalition is frightened on behalf of our lives, the lives of people we love, and for our work for climate justice. This is not business as usual, and we should never let it become normal. Everything Trump stands for ultimately endangers all of us.

We stand in solidarity with those most marginalized and endangered by a Trump presidency –  undocumented immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, Muslims and people of other marginalized faith groups, disabled people, mentally ill people, low-income people, and women. Trump’s rhetoric is unacceptable, and has legitimized a spree of hate crimes in the last two weeks. The hate he draws on existed in America long before this campaign, and dates back to the very founding of this country upon slavery and the genocide of Native peoples.

We also stand with the environment. Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign, he made it very clear that he will destroy everything that climate justice activists and environmentalists have worked hard to accomplish in the last 20 years. He has said he intends to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and most recently has appointed a climate change denier to head the EPA. The EPA and the Clean Power Plan might be flawed, but having them is better than not having anything. He also supports the expansion of coal mining and natural gas fracking in the United States. His policies will expand fossil fuel infrastructure such as the Dakota access pipeline and the KXL pipeline, and move us further away from climate justice.

Despite Trump’s orange appearance, he is not in support of divestment. Trump and his advisors are also working hard to have the United States withdraw from the historic (if flawed) Paris Climate Agreement. The rules of the Agreement make it difficult for countries to withdraw before 2020, but Trump is looking for other ways to avoid these (nonbinding) commitments, such as removing the United States from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or the United Nations itself.

We will continue to fight hard for intersectional climate justice. We call on Mount Holyoke College, as a progressive institution, to do the same.

#divest

Solidarity forever,

The Mount Holyoke Climate Justice Coalition

Take care of yourselves and look after each other! Here is a cute polar bear!

polar-bear-licking-snow

[image description: smol polar bear licking snow]