We must hold all leaders accountable, even those on our side

by Julia Berkman-Hill, class of 2017

It was surreal standing at the rope line of a Hillary Clinton event in Portsmouth, NH last Saturday evening, knowing that in a few moments I would be pressing her on a question she has evaded for months. What I had to do was so simple, but my heart pounded nonetheless. I took a deep breath, reached for her hand, and asked, “Secretary Clinton, will you pledge to stop taking money from fossil fuel lobbyists?” Immediately, her face hardened and she forcefully retracted her hand without a word.

Debriefing the event later that evening, another activist mentioned that she always felt nervous putting pressure on Clinton since she felt accountable to her in a way she didn’t feel accountable to the Republicans we were also pushing on climate issues.

I found that feeling in myself, too. Clinton does share a lot of my values, and she is an amazingly effective politician. She believes in climate change, renewable energy, a woman’s right to choose, as well as lots of other liberal things. In some ways, it’s easy to feel that she is good enough. It’s easy to feel that I should be fighting for her instead of fighting for better policies from her.

At the same time, I see the effect that activism has had on her, pushing her on issues such as oil extraction on public lands. All summer, protesters publicly disrupted her town halls and rallies chanting “Act on climate!” and holding banners and signs. Shortly after Clinton came out against Arctic drilling, Allyson Gross ’16 interrupted Clinton at a rally in Portland, asking her about her position on the Keystone Pipeline. Five days after that action, Clinton came out against the Keystone pipeline as well. The first time she was pressed on each of those issues, and the fifth time or even the fiftieth, she refused to take a stand. It is the persistence of activists across the country that has led her to move steadily to the left.

Still, Hillary continues to take money from the fossil fuel industry, and she is not the only one. When I came to Bowdoin, I felt that it, like Clinton, was good enough. However, not only is Bowdoin’s endowment invested in oil and gas, but plenty of the College’s trustees are heavily invested personally in these industries, too.

When I learned that Sheldon Stone, a Trustee who sits on the Investment Committeeruns a hedge fund with $2 billion in energy investments, largely oil and gas, it put Bowdoin’s silence on divestment into perspective. If he and other trustees are profiting from the companies that are polluting our communities, he would have no incentive to engage productively on divestment from those companies. When I further heard that Greenpeace referred to Stone as the “kingpin of carbon” in 2014 and that Stone and his wife have donated generously to Carly Fiorina and Marco Rubio, I understood why he and other trustees are not seriously addressing Bowdoin’s complicity in the climate crisis. Even if a concern for personal profits doesn’t directly affect his vision of Bowdoin’s future, Stone’s investments in oil and gas send a clear message that he stands on the side of fossil fuels.

A good number of first years I’ve talked to have asked me why I think Bowdoin has yet to divest. After all, barrels that transport oil are currently worth more than the oil inside of them. We have more evidence than ever that climate change is happening now and that it’s being caused by the fossil fuel industry. We know that oil refineries and coal plants are hurting our citizens’ health and threatening the existence of communities around the world who are vulnerable to rising seas and extreme weather.

And still, Bowdoin stays silent on divestment and silent on its connections to the fossil fuel industry. I haven’t known how to respond to those first years, because to me, and to them, divestment seems like common sense, and the inaccessibility of the Board has been incredibly frustrating and without easy explanation.

I think the answer is pretty clear to me now. Through their personal investments, many Bowdoin trustees have shown they have a stake in the continuing success of oil and gas companies. They have yet to show, however, their stake in mitigating the effects of climate change or transitioning to a new and sustainable economy.

As students at this institution we have a right to know how and why key decisions are made at Bowdoin, and understanding our trustees’ backgrounds is a big part of that. Just like Hillary, Bowdoin is not perfect. Bowdoin knew about these ties to the fossil fuel industry. Let’s keep asking questions. Let’s keep working to make Bowdoin reflect our values.

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