Fossil Free Occidental, an activist group consisting of Occidental students, faculty and other community members, recently launched a campaign to pressure the board of trustees to divest from 200 of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies that extract, refine or distribute oil, coal or gas for energy.
The campaign officially launched at the People’s Climate March Los Angeles on Sept. 20. The group hopes to persuade the Occidental board of trustees and other administrators who oversee the college’s endowment to immediately cease purchases of stocks in these companies and sell the existing stock holdings over the next five to 10 years.
“To act to agree to fossil fuel divestment identifies Occidental as a leader in this growing movement,” Urban and Environmental Policy (UEP) Professor Robert Gottlieb said. “To fail to act identifies Occidental as another status quo player, acknowledging that its investments in fossil fuels—and the climate impacts caused by them—are an acceptable choice to make.”
Fossil Free Occidental would like a minimum of 5 percent of the revenue generated from selling these stocks to be reinvested in socially responsible companies with missions more aligned with Occidental’s, according to campaign co-facilitator Lauren Breynaert (junior).
“What we’re really asking [the board] to think about is, as an institution that teaches social and community change and action on your beliefs, why are we putting our money to investments that not only support what these companies are doing, but also add to our climate crisis?” Breynaert said. “We can’t just turn a blind eye and indirectly support the largest perpetrators.”
Fossil Free Occidental started a petition on Sept. 29 with the intent of gathering a minimum of 100 signatures in support of their cause. They plan to march to President Jonathan Veitch’s office to personally deliver the petition to him.
Last year’s UEP 310 Community Organizing class started research and coalition-building around the campaign. This year’s UEP 246 class, Sustainable Oxy: Campus Greening, in which devising a campus sustainability effort is part of the curriculum, continued the effort. The class could pursue any sustainability-related goal that the student facilitators chose, so they decided to use the class as the official research group of the campaign.
Much of the divestment campaign hinges on strength in numbers. The group does not have much money, Breynaert explained, but this does not worry them. They are hoping to make their biggest change through community organizing.
“This campus has a very large environmentally-friendly contingent that doesn’t really have an organization to work with,” campaign co-facilitator Andrew Eichar (junior) said. “We’re hoping to bring in as many people as there are who want to join and have their voices heard.”
According to the National Association of College and University Business Officers, the college’s endowment was more than $356 million when last reported in 2013. This figure placed it 198th out of 849 in NACUBO’s ranking of all American and Canadian institutions’ endowments.
The college’s investments are primarily controlled by the investment firm Cambridge Associates, but ultimately, the board of trustees decides where the money goes. While divesting from fossil fuel companies may be logistically inconvenient for the board, they have not ruled out divestment as an option, according to Chairman of the Board Christopher Calkins ’67.
“The board of trustees always supports vigorous and thoughtful discussion of important issues in the Occidental community,” Calkins said via email.
Other comparable higher education institutions, such as Pitzer College and Stanford University, have recently divested their portfolios of fossil fuel stocks. In addition, several city governments across the United States have pledged to divest funds invested in fossil fuel companies.
Many fossil free campaigns receive resources and support from a larger umbrella campaign titled ‘350’ by 350.org. The organization gets its name from the 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere that scientists consider a maximum for preserving a liveable planet. Occidental’s campaign is independent and student-run, but receives logistical support from 350.