Vote Yes to Divest


(Petey Suechting)–In June 2010 the House of Representatives did something worthwhile for a change and passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES), marking the first time a congressional house has passed any sort of climate legislation. But in July, when the bill made it to the Senate, they screwed the whole thing up and it was announced that it would not make it onto the legislative docket before the congressional summer recess, effectively killing it.

Many commentators and analysts have laid blame on many different targets, President Obama first and foremost among them. Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist and sociologist, released a detailed analysis of the political fight over the bill that lays blame for the death of the bill on an unexpected source: the environmental organizations that created and sponsored the bill. These groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Resources Defense Council, and the Nature Conservancy, to name a few, directed their resources primarily to the Washington legislative game, and secondarily to building broad public consensus behind the bill. When political alliances began to break down due to ideologically radical Tea Party elements influencing Republican senators, environmentalists and their Democratic allies in the Senate were not able to draw on reserves of public support and the bill was trashed. (You can find the full analysis here, and an interview with Theda Skocpol here).

The political landscape has changed drastically in Washington since the advent of the Tea Party. Money and ideology drive political decisions, or more often, political deadlock. To have a shot at influencing national environmental politics it is absolutely essential that we create a broad national movement. If we look back at the creation of America’s first environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the creation of the EPA, it is easy to see the truth of this. These acts all owe their existence to the first Earth Day event on April 22, 1970. Inspired by the democratic Senator of Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, Earth Day began as a national teach-in intended to bring awareness to the environmental issues of the day. Though planned by only a couple of young environmental activists, Earth Day generated twelve thousand events across the country, mostly in high schools and colleges, and included more than thirty-five thousand speakers and millions of participants.

Today, a couple of years after Congress failed to bring us carbon legislation, and we still face the perils and uncertainties of an imminent climate crisis, our need for a national, broad-based movement is obvious. The good news is that we have that movement in our own campus fossil fuel divestment campaign. The better news is that, with the help of and Bill McKibben, the divesment movement has spread to over 300 college campuses nation-wide. And the best news is that of all the campus campaigns, Amherst College has one of the best shots at success.

For those new to the divestment conversation, I will not go into why divestment from coal companies is a good idea, even necessary. That information is available upon request from a GAP member, or here. The process of divestment, however, aims to remove the college endowment from direct or indirect investment in coal industries. This year the College holds no direct investments in coal, but we have been invested in the recent past. A statement from the Trustees barring all future endowment investments in coal would therefore have significant symbolic implications while not even harming the College’s financial health. The endowment, to clarify terms, is the large sum of money from which the college draws financial health, providing cash for financial aid and construction and renovation projects, among other things. Financial contributions to the college from alumni donations and other gifts form the seed money of the endowment, which is grown and cultivated through investment. The Board of Trustees are the guardians of the endowment and are the ones that make the broad decisions about what types of investments to make. In general, though, the actual investing of the endowment is delegated to professional financial advisors, who carry out the directives of the Trustees. The goal of the divestment campaign then is to convince the Board of Trustees that divesting from coal is both popular and strategically valuable. Once we do that, the Board will pass this information down to the financial advisors, who will remove our investments from coal. (If you want to understand more about the specifics of the divestment strategy, read my previous post here).

The Green Amherst Project (GAP) last met with the Trustees in January. Since then, GAP has been working on a student referendum and an AAS senate resolution to convince the Trustees of the broad support for coal divestment. Understandably, the Trustees have been reluctant to commit to divestment. After all, fossil fuel industries are the most profitable industries in history, making a compelling case for investment. However, with the upcoming student referendum, the student body will have its own opportunity to make a compelling case, only this time for divestment. It is important to realize, though, that the referendum is not a binding commitment to action on the Trustees behalf. That is why GAP needs all the support it can get. If the referendum reflects half-hearted support, then the Trustees will not divest. But if we achieve campus-wide solidarity behind divestment, then the Trustees will have to listen.

The history of environmentalism is driven by the success of broad-based national movements and impeded by insider power games. We need everyone on campus to throw their support behind this movement. That is how we win. On a national level, we need every college campus and every community to join in the fight. A success story from Amherst, a prestigious and respected institution, will catalyze this by convincing other campus administrations and communities that divestment is truly the correct course of action. With a broad-based national movement we will get the attention of our national administration and convince its dead-locked Congress and wary President that environmental legislation is not only what our country wants, but more importantly, what it needs.

– Photo Credit: Flickr User  CM195902