Climate change is as much an issue of justice as it is one of chemistry or physics. For many of us, ideas about what the “environment” is have become disconnected from everyday life; we tend to think of climate change as an issue for polar bears and environmentalism as an effort for white wealthy people. This is not without good reason – the mainstream environmental movement has traditionally been almost exclusively white. It has catered to the desires of some and amplified the voices of a few, while ignoring the needs of the majority, especially when that majority is brown and/or poor. As the effects of climate change intensify, it becomes increasingly clear that these impacts disproportionately harm low-income and minority communities, both locally and around the world. The campaigns and movements that we build to fight climate change must include all people, especially those who are most affected, and must also work against the intersecting forms of oppression that have ravaged communities across the world. Climate change is only one symptom of many systemic problems, and the solutions must be as intersectional as the problems.
So how are minority and low-income communities more greatly impacted by environmental problems and climate change? The fossil fuel industry holds enormous power over our economy, society, and political processes. With profit as their motive and our politicians in their pocket, fossil fuel companies have managed to avoid any meaningful regulation around oil and gas extraction, refining, production, and export. Industrial plants, refineries, landfills, highways, and other polluting facilities are far more likely to be built in minority or low-income communities. On the local level, problems of pollution and environmental contamination are almost always directly tied to issues of social justice.
In addition, the impacts of rising seas, temperature increase and frequent extreme weather patterns affect the Global South far more dramatically than they do the Global North. Communities already marginalized by global systems of oppression often aren’t able to adapt to changing climates as easily as communities with vast power and resources, so the effects of climate change aggravate existing inequalities. Dumping the negative effects of environmental destruction on those who have little historical responsibility and are already systematically dominated by those in power is criminal. The cumulative result of these day-to-day impacts is a death sentence for many communities.
The solutions to these problems do not lie at the individual level. For most people, driving hybrids and buying organic are not feasible. While taking shorter showers and recycling are very good things to do, we are not going to compost our way to a new economy and political system. These systems are not a matter of personal choice; they are about the institutional structures that keep people economically, socially, and politically dependent on an extractive fossil fuel economy and dominated by corrupt political and economic systems.
The fossil fuel industry is the most significant contributor to climate change. Five investor-owned companies (BP, Chevron, Cononco-Phillips, ExxonMobil, and Shell) have produced enough fossil fuels to account for 12.5% of human-generated CO2 since 1854. And they want to keep going. Despite the growing global acceptance that we need to move away from an extractive economy, fossil fuel companies spent some $670 billion exploring for new oil and gas resources in 2013 alone. That’s $1.84 billion per day. In 2014, fossil fuel lobbyists spent about $160 million in the U.S. alone. The sector as a whole received $1.9 trillion in subsidies in just one year.
The power that the fossil fuel industry holds over our economy, society, and political system is one of the major barriers to achieving climate solutions. The fossil fuel industry directly profits off of climate destruction and has stopped at nothing to avoid meaningful regulation and to prevent a transition towards a clean energy economy. Not only does our political system support climate destruction and our taxpayer money actively subsidize it, but our institutions also support it through their investments.
That’s where divestment comes in. The fossil fuel divestment movement has taken off in the last few years, spreading around the globe to hundreds of institutions ranging from colleges and universities to churches, private corporations, pension funds, cities, and states. Divestment seeks to raise awareness of the destructive, unjust practices of the fossil fuel industry and its powerful grip on the American and world political systems. It takes away the social license of the fossil fuel industry, and ostracizes them as one of the key opponents in this fight. Put simply, it is based on the idea that if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. At its core, an investment is something you want to see continue into the future. You are betting on it succeeding, and have an interest in its continued existence. Divestment is a way that students can leverage the power of our elite institutions and demand they do everything into their power to prepare us for a livable future. This future must include new kinds of systems that lead to environmental, economic, and social justice for all people.
As a privileged, powerful, and wealthy institution, Pomona College has the moral responsibility to use its money to support environmental justice rather than environmental destruction. Moreover, as an institution of higher education that wishes to build a world of socially conscious, critical, and active leaders, Pomona needs to take a stand to create the political and economic environment that will allow for that.
Pomona’s mission statement says, “Pomona students are inspired to engage in the probing inquiry and creative learning that enable them to identify and address their intellectual passions. This experience will continue to guide their contributions as the next generation of leaders, scholars, artists and citizens to fulfill the vision of its founders: to bear their added riches in trust for all.” Our education and endowment must be part of this work to create the socially just, fulfilling, and creative world we wish to see. Investing in fossil fuels, in climate destruction, and in the systems that perpetuate it is in direct contradiction to Pomona’s professed mission. Our education should not support a system that is destroying our future.
A global movement is rising up, and the time has come for Pomona to use its power and privilege to support these struggles for justice. We are asking our college to be part of the change. Help us transform the institutional structures preventing action against climate change and fight for dominated communities and countries facing destruction, famine, flood, drought, and war. Divestment is not the only answer, and alone it will never be close to enough. But it is a critical step, and now is the critical time. Divestment is the tactic; climate justice is the goal. Join us.
Suggestions for further reading:
17 Principles of Environmental Justice: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/principles.pdf
Environmental Racism: http://www.goldmanprize.org/blog/environmental-racism-in-america-an-overview-of-the-environmental-justice-movement-and-the-role-of-race-in-environmental-policies/
Let This Earth Day Be The Last: http://www.thenation.com/article/let-earth-day-be-last/
Who Funds Climate Denial: http://drexel.edu/now/archive/2013/december/climate-change/
Get Intersectional!: http://www.yesmagazine.org/planet/get-intersectional-why-your-movement-can-t-go-it-alone
Why #Blacklivesmatter should transform the climate debate: http://www.thenation.com/article/what-does-blacklivesmatter-have-do-climate-change/
Black Lives Matter movement calls for fossil fuel divestment: http://grist.org/justice/the-movement-for-black-lives-calls-for-fossil-fuel-divestment/
Why the Climate Movement Must Stand with Ferguson: http://350.org/how-racial-justice-is-integral-to-confronting-climate-crisis/
Intersectionality isn’t just a win-win; it’s the only way out: http://wagingnonviolence.org/feature/intersectionality-isnt-just-win-win-way/
Denmark is doing very well on renewable energy: https://www.guardian.com/environment/2015/ju/10/denmark-wind-windfarm-power-exceed-electricity-demand