Last Wednesday, Divest Amherst escalated their campaign to call for the college’s divestment from all fossil fuels, a step up from their rejected proposal to the Board of Trustees last semester demanding divestment just from coal. Amherst’s divestment movement now stands alongside those at various other institutions, many of whom have already divested from fossil fuels. This announcement was made at a rally held at the doorsteps of Johnson Chapel, where Naomi Klein spoke at this year’s DeMott lecture about her book, This Changes Everything. The main argument of the book is that the challenge of climate change is an opportunity for people around the world to overcome all other social issues while confronting climate change to save our planet for future generations. Klein argues that, due to the threat of climate change, we will be able to come together and simultaneously rid society of the various forms of systemic oppression that keep us apart.
This is an argument that has been, and should be contested. For someone living in constant fear of violence simply because of the color of their skin or their gender identity, how will seeing a piece of legislation limiting carbon emissions help them feel safer in their day to day lives? But I do think Klein’s argument highlights the intersectionality inherent in thinking about climate change. Though solving climate change may not solve all the world’s other forms of inequality, we must consider those struggles alongside climate change, and think about how the effects of climate change manifest themselves differently for different groups of people.
There has been a plethora of research done explaining the ways in which climate change will disproportionately affect various marginalized groups, including women, people living in lower income areas, and people of color living in Africa and Asia, especially those in coastal areas. A 2014 United Nations report came to this conclusion, stating “[p]eople who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change.” Many lower income areas and developing nations are more susceptible to natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, and rising sea levels, and will certainly have a more difficult time reconstructing damaged infrastructure than wealthier nations or regions. Since climate change affects agriculture and crop production as well, lower income peoples, the majority of which are woman, are affected more heavily by this. Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director, said on the subject in 2009, “Poor women in poor countries are among the hardest hit by climate change, even though they contributed the least to it.”
Similarly, it is the countries that contribute the least to climate change that are likely to be disproportionately affected. A 2ºC global temperature increase, something predicted to occur within 20 or 30 years, would have devastating effects on the entire world, causing “severe drought, rising seas and supercharged storms as well as food and water security becom[ing] routine challenges.” But it is not the USA and China, the two largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions that will feel the brunt of these difficulties. According to a 2013 World Bank report, Sub-Saharan Africa and South and South East Asia, especially their coastal regions, would be disproportionately affected (and in many cases, already have been affected) by such an increase.
Perhaps what is best to draw from Klein’s linkage of various other social inequalities to climate change is not that focusing on environmental issues will resolve all other injustices, but to consider that the harm of climate change is amplified by those other forms of oppression, and by continuing practices that further the detrimental effects of climate change, those other forms of oppression are being amplified as well. In this line of thinking, supporting and investing in the fossil fuel industry is another way of disproportionately harming women, people of color, and low-income peoples around the globe, alongside all other groups as well.
Amherst’s claim that it supports diversity in its student body and in the world, and that it is dedicated to dismantling racism, is contradictory to its position to remain invested in fossil fuels. For Amherst to accept a student from the Maldives, and claim that the college will do what it can to create a safe and nurturing environment for that student, while simultaneously investing in industries leading to the extinction of the Maldives as a livable landmass, shows a lack of foresight and a lack of empathy for our future wellbeing.
But the unfortunate truth is that these aren’t the concerns of the Board. The Board is concerned with having enough money for a new science center, for new dormitories, for financial aid and to save for a rainy day. Much of our funding also contributes to administrative salaries that rank among the highest in Massachusetts and the country, contributing to a national trend in which college administrators receive salaries comparable to those of business executives, not to mention the hefty salaries some of our most esteemed faculty are privy to, the highest of which go to white men.
Yes, divesting would likely take away from these things. And so the board has deemed that because of this, divestment isn’t feasible. But that decision is being made without us as students. Surely, there must be other lucrative investments other than fossil fuels for the college to consider. Even from a purely economic standpoint, fossil fuels are a bad investment. They’re a finite resource that will increasingly find impediments, such as carbon taxes and other such regulations, to dampen the industry’s growth. And as fossil fuels become increasingly less viable (both as an energy resource and a financial investment), the renewable energy industry will start to boom.
Even if there are losses in the short term, perhaps a temporary decrease in profit is worth the preservation of our planet. Divestment may be something more radical than we have yet considered, and because of that more powerful. Perhaps what divestment means is not having a new science center in order to help save our planet. Perhaps it means waiting a few more years to renovate a dorm or upgrade classroom facilities so our school can invest in renewable energy sources. Divestment means losing money in the short term to help our planet survive in the long term. If Amherst College wants to cultivate students that will “bring light to the world,” Terras Irradient, the college must also do everything it can to ensure that we have a world to bring light to.