June 2014

Voting yes to wrecking the climate

By Michaela Steiner

Protesters march at Fort Lewis College on Earth Day to try to persuade the college foundation to divest from fossil fuels.

Glaciers descend into the ocean, the ozone layer dissolves, superstorms like Hurricane Sandy continue to escalate, and intense heat waves wreak habitat loss and wildlife extinction. People begin evacuating their homes due to a dramatic rise in sea levels and the term “climate refugee” is coined.

Some think this scenario sounds apocalyptic. What they might not realize is that this isn’t a future picture of our planet; it’s the current effects of climate change due to anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere. Suddenly, the situation becomes urgent: it’s happening now and we have to do anything we can to mitigate these effects and create a better reality for generations to come.

Unfortunately, the Fort Lewis College Foundation doesn’t think so.

I’m a motivated Fort Lewis College student and I submitted a proposal to the college’s foundation to divest from the top 200 coal, oil, and natural-gas corporations over a span of five years. Such companies in their portfolio include Occidental Petroleum, the company responsible for “Love Canal,” as well as Tullow, a company that has spilled over 400,000 tons of oil and illegally dumped waste in populated areas of Western Uganda. The amount to divest would only make up about $150,000 in a $17.2 million portfolio, representing an approximate 0.8 percent of their entire endowment. It’s not a huge ask.

After founding the campaign and building a divestment team, I directed an effort to gather over 1,000 student petition signatures, or petition signatures from about one quarter of the entire student body, in less than six months. We built student organization coalitions, got a joint student and faculty resolution passed in favor of fossil-fuel divestment, held an Earth Day Rally with over 40 students and faculty, and presented our movement to the President’s Cabinet, the Board of Trustees, the Foundation Investment Committee, and finally to the Foundation Board. On top of all this, I was jumbling my academics, two jobs, and an assortment of other student clubs and activities.

I gave my energy to this student movement because I believed in my heart that a broken energy system can be fixed. Before this movement, I believed that democracy would ring true, that the best interests of our Fort Lewis College community would be represented and supported by, at the very least, our own college president, Dene Kay Thomas. I believed by gathering enough public support, that I could show the foundation that investing in these coal, oil, and natural-gas companies is creating present conditions on earth that will make life not only inhabitable for Fort Lewis graduates, but for the rest of humanity and basically all other life forms on earth. By investing in fossil fuels, they are not supporting students’ futures, they are killing them.

After months of stalling and many ignored emails from foundation heads, the foundation took a unanimous vote to support the wreckage of our climate. After they voted, they admitted divesting wouldn’t financially hurt their pockets. As different board members spoke, they admitted that they felt “hypocritical” if they didn’t have fossil-fuel corporations in the college’s portfolio because they drove cars and used other devices that burn fossil fuels. Quite simply, they were not willing to take a strong stand for the environment and generations of Fort Lewis College students and alumni.
It’s hypocritical to have a fund that is going toward, as the foundation’s mission states, “wise investments in the leaders of tomorrow,” as they profit from supporting an industry that is causing climatic injustices worldwide. The Fort Lewis College Foundation is not supporting these leaders; they are suppressing the voice of the youth, this next generation of leaders to come.

People complain about this generation being far too apathetic, yet how could it be any different, when our voices are not listened to? Well… this generation of divestment leaders is standing strong and not taking “no” for an answer. We’re comfortable and ready to organize outside of institutional channels.

Michaela Steiner is a student at Fort Lewis College and the campaign founder of Divest FLC Now!