Divest Carleton from fossil fuels to save our school

By Rebecca Hahn, Maddie Halloran and Mindy Bell, on October 3, 2020

For weeks now, five of the six largest wildfires in California’s history have been burning, turning skies orange across the state. This year’s Atlantic hurricane season is already breaking records, with an unprecedented thirteen tropical storms named before September. 

In August, Iowa’s crops were devastated by a 100 mph derecho windstorm that flattened 10 million acres, followed by a subsequent drought. And of course, throughout the country, 200,000 people have died from a raging pandemic that has shut down the economy, cancelled sports and most other activities, and changed the way that our own Carleton College educates its students.

These disasters are not unrelated. California fires are increasing because of hotter temperatures and longer dry seasons. Stronger and more numerous hurricanes are fueled by higher sea surface temperatures. While the link between derechos and climate change is not yet clear, warmer temperatures are predicted to increasingly threaten crops across the Midwest, leading to more frequent spring flooding events and greater summer droughts and heat waves. Our risk for global pandemics grows as climate change threatens biodiversity, expands the habitats of disease-bearing insects, and melts frozen lands where ancient viruses could be released.

 Some Carls might think that our school will be safe from these sorts of disasters, that its mission to educate is not at risk. If the past year has taught us anything, it should be that we are not immune. 

A pandemic is capable of shutting down much of the school and impacting its ability to collect full tuition. What happens when increasing wildfires darken Carleton’s skies, sending smoke that sickens its students and ash drifting across the chapel roof? 

What happens when Northfield floods over and over, harming the local economy and the bucolic small town milieu that Carleton sells so well? Climate change does impact Carls, both in Northfield and in their own hometowns. It will limit the school’s pool of applicants, as rolling catastrophes put higher education out of reach for more and more young people. It will increase racial and economic inequalities, as vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by ecological disasters. It will even hurt the endowment, as the world economy suffers through heat waves, floods, hurricanes, fires, droughts, diseases, famines, refugee displacements, and wars.

The only way to mitigate the effects of global climate change is to transition our society away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. This is the goal of the Divest Carleton movement. Not just to cease using fossil fuels ourselves, but to encourage a nationwide shift through our refusal to fund and profit from the oil and gas industries. As a highly regarded institution with a nearly billion dollar endowment, Carleton has a unique opportunity and obligation to build on the growing consensus that all responsible organizations must end associations with fossil fuels.

In the spring of 2019, The Carletonian published a letter detailing the reasoning behind seven U.S. News-ranked liberal arts colleges divesting from fossil fuels. Since then, the movement has continued to build momentum. Worldwide, 1,244 institutions with combined managed assets of $14.48 trillion have made divestment commitments. Last October, Smith College announced that it would divest its endowment, and this March, Wesleyan University joined them. 

In addition to these Carleton liberal arts competitors, several major universities have made their own pledges, including the University of California, whose endowment and pension totals $126 billion; the D.C. schools Georgetown and George Washington University; the U.K.’s world-renowned Oxford University; and two Ivy League schools, Brown University and Cornell University.

 As more colleges and universities divest, and as the climate crisis worsens, prospective students will be paying attention to the decisions that Carleton makes.

It’s good marketing to let them know that we care about their future, that we aren’t actively making money off the industries that are destroying their farms and their homes, their backyards and their favorite beaches.

 But we shouldn’t need a PR incentive to divest. Nor do we need an ethical one—though the moral imperative is strong. All we need to do is ask ourselves: do we want Carleton to thrive?

 The Senate of the Carleton Student Association (CSA) voted unanimously this past May in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Over 8% of the entire alumni population has signed a petition asking Carleton to divest. Including alumni, students, and some family and friends, 2,818 have signed. It’s time for the administration to finally listen to its students and alumni, who only want what’s best for our school. 

It’s time to divest Carleton from fossil fuels.

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