Bowdoin Climate Action in for the Long Haul

Below is a version of the blog originally posted to wearepowershift.org on December 4th, 2012 reaffirming Bowdoin Climate Action’s commitment to divestment.

“The wind of change is blowing through this continent,” British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan famously declared to the South African parliament in 1960 in regard to growing national consciousnesses in Africa that spurred the initial process of decolonization and dismantling of the British Empire.

At Bowdoin College, student activists brought that wind of change with them to a meeting with President Barry Mills to talk about divesting from the fossil fuel industry, or, if we’re running with the metaphor, the Fossil Fuel Empire. Backed by the signatures of more than 25% of the student body, we made it clear that we are in this for the long haul. Climate change is not going away any time soon, and neither are we.

At the beginning of the semester, students launched Bowdoin: Carbon Neutral, Carbon Free in conjunction with the Greenpeace Student Network and 350.org to eliminate the presence of fossil fuels at the College as a consumer and investor. We are calling on the College to transition to 100% clean energy on campus and to divest from the fossil fuel industry and reinvest in socially responsibly funds.

The fact is, what passed for progressive environmentalism a few years ago does not cut it anymore. Colleges need to step up as leaders by proving they will not associate with an industry whose practices oppose the realization of a prosperous future that universities work to give their students. The only radical course of action is not to act at all.

As the literal winds of climate change howl around us, in the form of superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, so come the figurative of winds of change, taking the nation by a storm as students call on their campuses to divest for the preservation of the future. We are the winds of change, and we’ll keep on blowing until we’ve won.

Sign the petition to make Bowdoin carbon free.

Hurricane Sandy, Climate Change Come to Bowdoin College

Below is a version of the blog originally posted on wearepowershift.org on N0vember 3rd, 2012 in response to the havoc wrought by Hurricane Sandy.

It wasn’t difficult to find the first Sandy-downed tree the morning after the storm—and Maine got off easy. It was just one tree, already stumped by the grounds crew; a poor analog, maybe, to the flooding and power outages and food shortages the rest of the Northeast faces, but proof nevertheless of the devastation Sandy left in its wake.

Sometimes it takes the largest hurricane on record to uproot our trees and knock down our power lines to remind us: everyday, we make choices that affect our climate’s future, our future. Sometimes those choices culminate in a mild frost in early October; other times they culminate in up to $50 billion in damages. Point is, it’s all connected. Burning fossil fuels led to Hurricane Sandy. We are all complicit in climate change.

But we don’t have to be. We can take a stand against business as usual and let our leaders know that, actually, a greenwashed agenda of fracking for natural gas and an all-of-the-above energy policy just doesn’t cut it anymore.

Divest fossil fuels.

Climate activists at Bowdoin showing the connection between investing in the fossil fuel industry and climate catastrophe

So that’s what we did. Climate activists at Bowdoin College found that uprooted tree, that physical proof of climate change altering the face of the earth, and we took a picture to send to our newspaper. “Divest disaster,” our banner declared, because while our money continues to fund dirty energy and ever increasing storms-of-the-century, it won’t just be the polar bears that are at risk. (Though as the Bowdoin Polar Bears, we’re concerned about that, too.)

Sometimes, you take one picture and it becomes something bigger. It becomes a full-page color spread in the newspaper, reminding the entire school that it is an accomplice to the harrowing Hurricane Sandy. It becomes a front-page article challenging the College’s dedication to reaching carbon neutrality by 2020. It becomes an editorial endorsing the campaign to divest fossil fuels and transition to 100% clean energy. It becomes the president of student government asking how she can help to winthat campaign.

And sometimes a letter to the editor calling for responsible handling of the College’s endowment and the closure of its natural gas plant leads to agitated phone calls that the administration has to handle all day. Sometimes it leads to a reprimanding. Because, sometimes, you rock the boat. Sometimes you welcome a hurricane’s storm swells as they help you rock it. Sometimes, you want the boat to capsize and flip everybody’s mind around with it—convincing them, finally, that climate change is a problem, and that you can make a difference. All the time.

A Response to President Mills

Below is a response to the objections raised by President Mills when he met with Bowdoin Climate Action to talk about divestment from the fossil fuel industry.  The response was also emailed to the signatories of the petition and posted to gofossilfree.org.

The emblems of Bowdoin College are two staple icons of the environmental movement. Our seal is the sun, the reason for life’s existence on earth and driver of all natural process. Our mascot is the polar bear, that cute and cuddly arctic creature identified as the first species in danger of going extinct because of anthropogenic climate change.

So, you could say, environmentalism is tied to the very fabric of the College. But you don’t have to rely on symbolic tropes to get that message across—just take a look at the mission of Bowdoin College, which states that we have a duty to understand our “natural environment, local and global, and the effects and the role of human beings regarding it.” Or even our environmental mission statement, in which we members of Bowdoin College pledge ourselves to the cause of a “just and sustainable future.”

Divest fossil fuels

Climate activists at Bowdoin College call on President Mills to divest fossil fuels.

That future is now looking neither just nor sustainable, however. Unfortunately, despite the pledge to the contrary, Bowdoin is implicated in the destruction of its students’ future. We invest in fossil fuels; we invest in climate change.

Student activists at Bowdoin urged our president Barry Mills on Tuesday to divest our endowment from the ruin of civilization that the College’s purpose is to upkeep. President Mills had words of caution for us—the endowment is not something to be taken lightly, especially when we’re on the verge of hitting the symbolic $1 billion mark.

First, the president first warned us of divestment’s efficacy. Fossil fuel companies make their money through selling a product: fossil fuels. By buying natural gas to heat our school and oil to drive our cars, the students and the administration alike help the fossil fuel industry profit. This underscores that we cannot rely on divestment alone to prevent climate catastrophe. We also need to be researching ways in which colleges nation-wide can totally go fossil free, with wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

The fossil fuel industry’s existence, however, relies on this clean revolution never happening. By investing in fossil fuel companies, we also invest in the prolonging of fossil fuels as an energy source, delaying the emergence of renewables as a viable option. We must divest fossil fuels.

Second, the president conveyed the seriousness of divestment’s consequences. He claimed that our endowment would suffer such that the College would have to cut something significant. He gave us our pick: financial aid, staff wages, faculty salaries, or a comfortable student quality of life? That’s a lot of guilt on our consciences, but this isn’t an either/or situation. Although the College certainly could be creative in what it cuts, and although I’ve talked to a professor who would be ready to take a salary cut if we were to divest, Bowdoin may not have to make such sacrifices.

Hours after our meeting with President Mills, Middlebury announced it had started the formal process of looking into divestment. The school announced that nearly $32 million were invested in fossil fuels—a paltry 3.6% compared to Middlebury’s $900 million endowment. If all that money were taken out of fossil fuel companies and placed into socially responsible funds that generate a similar (if not an exact) return, would Middlebury then have to face slashing financial aid or staff wages? Unlikely. Bowdoin’s endowment is probably pretty comparable in terms of fossil fuel investments (although there’s no saying for sure, because transparency is another problem). Bowdoin can afford to divest, but can it afford not to? We must divest fossil fuels.

Finally—and this was the president’s biggest objection—the College, as an educational institution, has a fiduciary duty to use its donated funds in a manner that furthers education. When alumni give to Bowdoin, they give expecting their money to be maximized to best suit the educational needs of the students. Without universal support, especially from our own government, President Mills claims that he cannot divest from fossil fuels in order to support one socio-political agenda.

Fortunately, Mother Nature is not one socio-political agenda, but the socio-political agenda. We are all inhabitants of this earth and we all will be affected by a warming climate, the common denominator. The devastation will come disproportionately. Not only will the poor suffer more than the rich (Haiti did not emit the same amount of carbon dioxide as America, but Hurricane Sandy did not care), but also will the young suffer more than the old. Carbon we burn now willstill linger in the atmosphere long after President Mills has left office. The future that college presidents around the country leave us with is not the future as they inherited it. Ours is looking much bleaker.

Not to divest, then, is to advance a socio-political agenda that no one agrees with. Regardless of whether members of Congress believe in climate change, climate will change—unless we do something about it. So while the fossil fuel industry has been pumping millions of dollars into Congress to make sure Shell and BP never have to pay a carbon tax, we students will take a stand. The destruction of our future is where we draw the line. We must divest fossil fuels.

As President Mills relayed to us, divestment is not a matter to be taken lightly. But neither is our future. Bowdoin teaches us to rise to challenges. Because we find something difficult is not an excuse to give up the search for solutions. It should be no different if that something is difficult as well as profitable.

Divestment’s difficulty, then, lies only in the lack of money and political will. The concern over the endowment should reminds us at Bowdoin that we have more money than most. And now, we students are providing the will. We are polar bears standing up for polar bears, ensuring that the sun will continue to rise over a planet with a “just and sustainable future.”

Ultimately, the choice that divestment poses is whether Bowdoin supports that future or supports the backwards practices of the fossil fuel industry. The decision, much like our school colors, is black and white.

Sign the petition: http://act.350.org/sign/Fossil_Free_Bowdoin/

Like us on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/BowdoinCarbonNeutralCarbonFree

President Mills Claims Bowdoin Will Not Divest, Middlebury Announces Plans to Start

View and comment on the article dated December 7th, 2012 by Marisa McGarry of The Bowdoin Orient that debriefs Bowdoin Climate Action’s meeting with President Mills here.

Mills says College will not divest from fossil fuels

“At this point, we’re not prepared to commit to divest from fossil fuels, but I would never say never,” said President Mills on Tuesday afternoon