The Investment Logic Killing Our Planet

Climate change is often treated as something that we must work to prevent collectively — cutting fossil fuel emissions and moving towards renewable energy to prevent a 1.5 degrees Celsius warming. Such warming would surely have a devastating impact on society, with effects ranging from constant extreme weather events to rising sea levels that destroy entire communities. Without a doubt, it is important that we avoid the worst possible impacts of the climate crisis. But too often when using this framework of focusing on the future, we ignore the catastrophes already occurring given rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Treating climate change as a phenomenon that will take hold in some distant future allows for downplaying measures to curb emissions now. Financial institutions with the power to accelerate a global shift towards renewable energy and away from fossil fuels often use this logic to justify their continued support for fuel operations. As a divestment organizer at Pomona College in Claremont, California, I have heard such logic espoused by administrative figures first-hand.

Pomona College, which operates an endowment of over three billion dollars, champions a commitment to “doing [their] part to create a better future,” including campus carbon neutrality by 2030. But how does this commitment align with Pomona’s investments in oil and gas corporations which they have recognized and refused to eliminate? This stance lets us see clearly the insidious effects of pretending that climate change is tomorrow’s problem. Too often have I heard from the administration that their thriving investment portfolio will in the future allow them to pursue more sustainability initiatives on campus, thus negating the negative effects of their fossil fuel investments.

But numerous colleges and universities have already divested without experiencing any negative financial impact. The University of California, in fact, divested precisely because fossil fuels are no longer a good investment for long-term returns. Yet, even ignoring this fact, the logic of investing in unethical practices to build capital for some future crisis is deeply flawed. The crisis has arrived. Just because it is likely to get much, much worse, does not mean it isn’t already wreaking havoc, especially in vulnerable communities.

Numerous Rachel Carson Council Fellows have already demonstrated ways in which the climate crisis is causing destruction now, whether from rising rates of species decline and extinction, or water scarcity harming Indigenous groups. Pomona College and institutions like it need to realize that continuing to support fossil fuel corporations and bankrolling the destruction brought on by global warming is not merely in some hypothetical future. The damage is now — occurring with harmful effects felt by people across the United States and around the world.

It is true that garnering capital to further sustainability goals, such as Pomona’s commitment to carbon neutrality by 2030, is important. I am appreciative of sustainability efforts wherever I see them; it is undeniable that the coordinated efforts of societies around the world to transition away from fossil fuels have had a substantial impact in veering us off the most dangerous path to climate catastrophe. Nevertheless, sustainability initiatives should not come at the expense of vulnerable communities that already feel the impact of global warming. In essence, institutions that invest in fossil fuels treat under-resourced communities as sacrificial. It is as if current disasters from the climate crisis aren’t meaningful because they are felt less by the heavily-shaded and affluent Claremont community.

Of course, this is not to say that even affluence can stave off the impacts of climate catastrophe, either today or in the future. Pomona College ought to care more about how their investments impact the planet not only because of impacted communities around the world, but because even in Claremont, we are feeling the effects. The heat wave that swept over campus in September was the most severe ever recorded in California – students were forced out of their sweltering rooms to sleep in common areas; the record heat posed immense health risks.

Climate catastrophe is already taking hold, and not just in far off places we read about in the news, but right here in our own Claremont community. Pomona College must end its irresponsible investment practices. There is no excuse for continuing to fund fossil fuel corporations and the havoc they wreak on our planet, not even for promises of future increased sustainability. By reinvesting and supporting renewables now with its massive endowment, Pomona could stay on track with earned revenue for future goals while also getting its money out of the business of climate destruction.

Nicholas Black

RCC Fellow – Nicolas Black – Pomona College

RCC Fellow Nicholas Black is a third-year student from Western New York studying politics at Pomona College. Passionate about environmental justice and community organizing, he is a leader in the on-campus effort to achieve fossil fuel divestment and endowment justice. He seeks to highlight the hypocrisy of institutions of higher education that tout their support and acceptance of minority and low-income individuals while perpetuating environmental racism and climate catastrophe through their investment portfolios.