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Claremont colleges' divestment movement aims to create urgency to get off fossil fuels

by Molly Peterson | Take Two

Pitzer College junior Jess Grady-Benson and dozens of other students at the Claremont colleges are working together to push their schools' investments out of fossil fuels. Molly Peterson/KPCC

Long ago in a Connecticut classroom, then fifth-grader Jess Grady-Benson wrote an essay about growing up to be an environmentalist. She always knew she would be one, which is why she felt she had time to detour to Spain for a semester abroad, like most Pitzer College juniors do.

For sort of a last hurrah before going abroad, Grady-Benson helped rally schoolmates to a climate change event last fall headlined by author Bill McKibben. “I went backstage and I met [him] and I was going to give a speech before he came on and he said, Are you nervous?,” she says. “And he just grabs my arm and says you got this. And it was just, like the most inspiring moment.”

Inspiring enough to change her mind. She skipped her study abroad to stay in Claremont. Now she and dozens of students are working to convince trustees at Pitzer, Scripps College, Harvey Mudd, Pomona College and Claremont McKenna to take the schools’ endowments fossil fuel free. 

The divestment movement at the “5 C’s” is one of hundreds seeded by 350.org and McKibben. 350.org sponsored the “Do the Math” rally at which Grady-Benson met McKibben, too. 

The group’s name refers to 350 parts per million, a target for atmospheric carbon dioxide that if met would slow global warming.

350.org has leveraged buzz generated by a Rolling Stone article McKibben authored, in which he argues that higher education should stop investing endowment funds in top oil and gas companies.

350.org campaigner Deirdre Smith works with college students in California, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Smith makes frequent visits from the Bay Area to train Claremont’s core climate activists.

One rainy night in Vita Nova Hall, Smith asks 7 students to stand on a blanket. She tells them to imagine they’re safe as long as they’re standing on it, but they’ve also got to imagine being surrounded by lava. In this game they need to turn the blanket over to survive.

Student activists solve the problem pretty quickly, giggling, and telling each other to jump together as they slide and flip the blanket.

The game’s a metaphor for the challenge of switching away from fossil fuels. It’s part of a campaign playbook, tactics and strategies 350.org shares at hundreds of universities around the country.

Smith says every school she works with needs a slightly different touch. Stanford, for instance, is very methodical, she says. “Now that I’ve worked with them for a while with Stanford if we have to make a plan we’ll make it 2 weeks in advance of when it’s happening,” she says. “Whereas with the 5 C’s as I like to call them. We have this thing in like two days, so we’ll talk tonight, and we’ll figure it out,” she laughs, adding, “they’re both really great ways of being.”

Students across the 5 undergraduate Claremont colleges work together, but they’ve got to win over each school’s trustees separately.

Grady-Benson argues fossil fuel divestment makes sense for Pitzer, where sustainability has been a core value since the beginning. “It’s such an imperative to align what you’re projecting as an image and what you’re saying are your core values with where your money is,” she says.

Student activists met with Pitzer’s President Laura Skandera Trombley to urge immediate action. Trombley invited a representative to speak to the trustee’s investment committee, but she says she also told them that any decision about the school’s endowment requires cautious deliberation.

“I said, this is the beginning of a conversation where I think both sides are interested in doing right in the same issues,” says Trombley. “We want to be socially responsible, and part of being socially responsible is earning enough on our endowment that we can provide enough on our financial aid.”

Pitzer’s endowment is around $110 million. Pomona College, where students will speak to trustees later this month, holds reserves around $1.6 billion. Divestment at any Claremont school would be a big deal: just three small New England colleges have voted to divest from fossil fuels so far.

“This is a well-intentioned idea but I don’t think it’s gonna work,” says the Assabet Group’s Ralph Earle. Assabet’s a renewables-focused investment fund; before founding it, Earle directed environmental policy in Massachusetts.

Divestment from South Africa was a major movement during Earle’s college years. He says climate change is the biggest problem of our time, and his generation’s failure. But he argues earlier divestment efforts have had little impact on big problems. 

“Conditions in the Sudan are unchanged from pressure that was on 8 to 10 years ago,” Earle says. “Tobacco companies have done better under pressure to divest than the rest of the stock market.”

Grady-Benson says she’s heard arguments that students should try other tactics against climate change, like helping campuses go carbon neutral, or pledging to drive only fuel-efficient cars. That’s already happening, she says.

“Unfortunately right now the fossil fuel industry has a political and economic stronghold on this society,” she says. “We need to create the society in which its easy to make those changes in our lives.”

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