“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” Winston Churchill said this when it became necessary to take action during World War II. It is increasingly clear that we are entering the period of consequences for climate change.
The East Coast is still reeling from the unprecedented destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, which came right on the heels of one of the worst droughts the U.S. has experienced in 50 years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2012 is on track to be the warmest year in the U.S. to date. While no single event can be attributed solely to climate change, the science makes it clear: The burning of fossil fuels is causing climate disruption, including more intense storms like Sandy. For Sandy alone, Forbes estimated that the total damage will be between $30 and $50 billion. As the ocean waters warm and atmospheric temperatures rise, extreme weather events will become more frequently. The earth’s climate has already warmed by 0.8 degrees Centigrade. This number might seem small, but the impacts have been more rapid and more widespread than scientists predicted. We are losing Arctic sea ice and altering the chemistry of our oceans, and we have yet to fully understand how our society will cope with such sudden changes. We simply cannot afford the cost of climate change. In turn, the fossil fuel industries have become increasingly risky investments, endangering our future and financial stability.
The mounting urgency of the climate crisis is clear, yet Congress has repeatedly failed to take action on climate change. Climate change was ignored in the 2012 election cycle and merited little more than half a line in President Obama’s recent victory speech. With the political process stalled, local action by local institutions is the most immediate hope for change. With this in mind, a growing coalition of schools is campaigning to remove their endowments from fossil fuel investments. Led by Bill McKibben and 350.org, over 40 schools, including Amherst, Middlebury and Harvard, are mobilizing to divest from fossil fuels. Divestment is not a new tactic – it was a key part of the international campaigns to end apartheid in South Africa and genocide in Sudan. Student demand pushed the College to divest from both of these causes. Today, divestment can be our tool for combating the fossil fuel industry.
Divestment is a particularly apt tactic here at the College, where our endowment is $1.8 billion – one of the largest per capita endowments of any educational institution. We have been researching the endowment for months, yet it remains unclear where the College’s money is invested. What is clear is that some portion of the Williams endowment is invested in coal and other fossil fuels and that such investments contradict our educational mission.
Our liberal arts education does not exist in isolation from the larger world. The College’s mission states, “No one can pretend to more than guess at what students now entering college will be called upon to comprehend in the decades ahead.” The sad truth is that we know at least one great crisis that this generation of students at the College will be called upon to comprehend: climate change. As a campus and individually, it is our responsibility as students to extricate ourselves from the industries that jeopardize our future. It is not enough to act as individuals: We are also obligated to examine the impact of our institution. The College has already made significant commitments to campus sustainability, but we must also simultaneously examine the impact of our endowment. Divestment is not just a chance to remove our endowment from unsustainable investments – it also provides an opportunity to reinvest in the green economy of the future.
Investing in fossil fuels means investing in climate disruption, and investing in climate change means investing in an irresponsible and unsustainable future. We cannot solve this problem overnight, or by ourselves, but we can stop making it worse. Our educations should not fund or be funded by such an unlivable future. Amherst students are demanding that their college divest permanently from direct investments in coal. It is time for Williams to commit to keeping its direct investments free from coal as well. Never one to pass up a challenge from our rivals, the College must also establish a longer-term plan for complete divestment from fossil fuels.
Vera Cecelski ’13 is a political science major from Harlowe, N.C. She lives on Grundy Court. Dana Golden is an environmental policy major from Seattle, Wash. She lives on Latham Street.