Students Discuss Divesting from Fossil Fuels

By Taylor Galla ‘18
Staff Writer

Students at the BeHeard forum. Photos by Tyra Abraham '17.

Students at the BeHeard forum. Photos by Tyra Abraham '17.

On Tuesday April 14, Scripps’ BeHeard Forum was joined by Scripps Climate Justice to discuss their recent campaign for fossil fuel divestment, to spread the word about the work they are doing and to obtain feedback about ways in which their campaign strategies can be improved.
The official demand of Scripps Climate Justice is as follows: “[W]e call on Scripps College to immediately freeze any new investment in the 200 publicly traded fossil-fuel companies with the most reserves, and to divest within five years from direct ownership and from any commingled funds that include fossil-fuel public equities and corporate bonds. We also hope to consider options for reinvestment of five percent of the endowment in climate solutions, including one percent in community investment and four percent in traditional endowment asset classes.”

Fossil fuel divestment is when companies and institutions remove investment of any sort from companies that produce fossil fuels and destroy the environment in order to make a profit.
With Pitzer’s recent divestment as well as the divestment of a number of other institutions, cities and big corporations like Ben & Jerry’s over the past decade, the discussion of divestment is taking place at many universities and colleges such as Scripps.

It is recorded that as of October 2014, over 200 institutions and 50 billion dollars have been divested from fossil fuels in the U.S.

“[Fossil fuel divestment] is an attempt to use the power and privileges that we have as college students to make changes within our institutions that will reflect and make larger changes within the political atmosphere of the country,” Avery Pheil ‘17, one of the representatives for Scripps Climate Justice, said. “For the most part it’s not about our individual changes; it’s hoping to focus more on the coalitions that have formed and it’s about using divestment as a tactic for climate justice. Climate justice has a lot more to do with the effects of big industries and institutionalized approaches to energy use that really affect frontline communities and minority communities and people of color around the U.S. in specific ways.”

In order for Scripps to become a part of this larger movement happening all over the country, however, the Board of Trustees has to have many conversations with Scripps’ investment managers and those who manage the endowment and weigh the potential risks.

“We need to remember that when you’re taking your money out of fossil fuel companies, you’re not just taking it out and not doing anything with it,” Jessica Ng ‘15, SAS Sustainability Chair, said. “You’re re-investing it into something else. And I think that a lot of decisions on where you’re going to re-invest it is going to influence what that risk is.”

Decisions about where Scripps will reinvest that money and how its portfolio will look after these major changes are not decisions the Board and investment managers are taking lightly, and the process towards divestment is lengthened by the complexity of these issues.
“We don’t have an endowment that can just invest in the stock market,” Donna Ng, Vice President for Business Affairs and Board of Trustees Treasurer, said. “We have asset allocations, which is a strategy to diversify, to manage risk and reward and risk and return-- there’s a real balancing act that has to happen with risk and return. There’s a lot of discussion about how to do that without tying the hands of the investment company.”

The importance of a well-rounded portfolio with investments spread out over many different industries of varying types is important to the success of an endowment of an institution like Scripps.

“Part of it is the way in which you put your portfolio together, so you want lots of things from lots of different types of industries,” Nia Gillenwater ‘16 said. “So if something really terrible happens [to one industry], it’s not going to ruin your portfolio. It’s to spread the risk to as many different areas as possible and fossil fuels has the reputation of being a relatively safe investment and they’ve also been a growth industry that has slowed down.”
Investments in fossil fuels over time, however, are proving to be less beneficial and worthwhile, as many industries are choosing to divest.

“I’m also thinking that the value of fossil fuels in the long term is going to decrease in the next couple decades as more resources become available-- hopefully as we move away from fossil fuels,” Jessica Ng said.

Donna Ng explained that the Board has this issue amongst the many issues they are discussing and that it is in their radar as something that the students care about and have brought to their attention in a multitude of ways.

“I think the investment committee takes its role very seriously in that it is responsible for the state of our endowment in terms of balancing the risk and return for today’s students as well as for tomorrow’s students,” Donna Ng said. “There is discussion and the Chair [of the Investment Committee] has agreed to speak with students and I believe that from there the Investment Committee will take it further. They actually have it on their agenda to discuss in May and then we’ll see from there whether or not there’s a statement. There definitely is dialogue going on.”
Looking beyond the logistical factors of getting the initiative successfully implemented, it is important to note why Scripps has an interest in this issue as well as the effects this type of stance will have on the global community.

“If we’re looking at [fossil fuel divestment] from a more global perspective and things like natural disasters as a result of climate change and conditions— for example, the drought that’s going on in California-- the immediate effects of which are not going to be as visible to us for the most part and are going to be more apparent in minority communities, one could argue that it would be ethical for Scripps as a progressive college to divest from fossil fuel industries that adversely affect the global environment,” Odaris Barrior-Arciga ‘18, member of Scripps Climate Justice said. “And you can also make a feminist standpoint that if we re-invest that money into new technologies, it’s pushing our own feminist representation in those industries. And I guess we would be the first women’s college to divest from fossil fuels, which is something we can claim for ourselves.”

The specific goals of campaigns to divest are also not just about the financial implications of divesting in these big institutions, but also about taking a political stance and hopefully changing attitudes about this issue on a national level.

“It’s also important to note that by divesting, it’s not like we think that taking out our investments from these companies is going to make a huge difference in their profits or anything like that,” Leta Ames ‘18 said. “It’s more of a political stance and getting more institutions to take notice and trying to change an attitude of investing in these companies or participating in what they’re doing to the world.”

There was also discussion around making this issue a priority for all students and establishing connections between students of varying identities to this issue.

“I think talking about it in an intersectional way is really important too because it’s a really intersectional issue,” Jessica Ng said. “I think that would help students feel more invested in it-- it’s hard to do that in a way that’s not super theoretical, but it would be helpful.”

“I think that would come through clearest in financial aid because the endowment is a very abstract concept to students, but understanding if that means we have more money for financial aid or less money for financial aid is a much more understandable concept and what that would mean for tuition,” Gillenwater said. “Taking those abstract concepts and discussing them within things that we already understand would be helpful.”

Students as well as Board of Trustee members are having extensive discussions surrounding this issue on campus, as well as across the 5Cs. The progress of the movement is something only time will tell.

There are many ways to get involved with Scripps Climate Justice, as well as other environmental clubs across the 5C campuses. Claremont Climate Justice is a 5C group with which Scripps Climate Justice collaborates and which is working on an anti-fracking campaign and has formed an environmental coalition that works with local organizations as well.