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Our Climate Crisis

Dear Students, Faculty, and Staff Members, 

Like many of you, I’ve been following the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and reading updates from Swarthmore’s own delegation. One can find cause for both optimism and concern at the COP26. While it’s encouraging to see the global community come together to address the climate crisis, many question the effectiveness and the urgency of the discussions taking place. What remains clear is that climate change is an existential threat to our planet. While we grapple with deep and painful political and social divides and unspeakable injustices around the globe, the question of the very existence of our planet as we know it is intertwined with those issues, and in many ways transcends them. All of us are subject to the effects of climate change, though — as is the case with so many crises — its impacts are felt disproportionately by the underrepresented, the underserved, and the poor. All of us must do what we can to confront this challenge.

Investing in Our Future

As a community of passionate, committed, and creative thinkers, Swarthmore is taking significant steps to address the effects of climate change. The College’s commitment to environmental sustainability dates back to its founding, and recent initiatives, such as the innovative and nationally recognized Carbon Charge program, the President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship, and our commitment to prioritizing the sustainability of all of our new construction projects and renovations are not only actions with tangible results, but they also serve as a blueprint for other institutions to follow, and over the years, we’ve actively urged them to do so.

Last spring, the College’s Board of Managers approved a $69 million energy plan — the Roadmap to Zero Carbon — enabling the College to live into its promise to be carbon neutral by 2035 and to position us as a national leader in this space. At the center of this plan is replacing our 110-year-old steam system, which is powered by the combustion of fossil fuels, with hundreds of geo-exchange wells underneath the campus grounds. (In fact, the reason part of Magill Walk is currently closed is so that we can install the necessary infrastructure to make this transition.) The centralized geo-exchange plant will be housed in the basement of the new Dining and Community Commons. In keeping with our commitment to power our campus with carbon-free energy sources, we have set the ambitious goal of ensuring that all of the building’s energy use comes from combustion-free renewable sources, which would make Swarthmore one of a very few colleges or universities in the country with a net-zero-carbon dining facility.

This project has already inspired donors, and we hope others will continue to support our commitment to reducing the coming effects of the climate crisis. Investing in these and similar efforts is among the most effective ways our community can contribute to this global fight. And as we begin a College-wide strategic planning initiative to help define the next chapter in Swarthmore’s storied history, we will continue to innovate and identify new approaches that our community can pursue to address the short- and long-term threats posed by climate change. As we consider a range of other strategic initiatives, we must also ensure that issues of sustainability are deeply connected to those efforts.

Managing Our Endowment

As is the case at many other institutions, the topic of climate change inevitably raises questions around the College’s financial assets and how its endowment is invested. The strength of our endowment is critical to supporting not just our efforts to reduce the effects of the climate crisis that I described above, but virtually all that we do. The endowment supports more than half of our operating budget each year. It allows us to admit students, regardless of their financial need, and to support the research, teaching, and co-curricular activities that define a Swarthmore educational experience. We must continue to be careful stewards of these resources to ensure they will be able to support in perpetuity the Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff members who are carrying out the College’s mission.

Our general practice is not to publicly disclose specific investment strategies. However, in the interest of clarity, allow me to share with you the following:

Less than 5% of the College’s endowment is invested in the energy sector, which includes companies in the fossil fuel industry, and guided by the College’s investment strategy, that percentage has steadily declined over the past several years. The College has no direct holdings of publicly traded stocks in the fossil fuel industry, and we do not anticipate making any direct investments in the future. In addition, we have made no new investments in private partnerships within the industry since 2019. Our existing partnerships have a limited term, and as they conclude, we expect investments in the sector will continue to decline.

Concluding Thoughts

Our community aspires to live into a mission steeped in knowledge, truth, equality, and inclusion. These shared values call us to act with urgency and resolve in the face of the climate crisis. This challenge demands a multifaceted, comprehensive response. Our commitment to intellectual inquiry, creativity, and the common good can inspire us, and others, to act boldly in the face of this global threat.

Val Smith