After mounting pressure from both students and the public, Harvard on Monday announced that it will heed calls to take climate change more seriously.
In a release on its website, Harvard President Drew Faust said the prestigious Ivy League school would become the first American university to pledge, via a United Nations-backed program, to make more environmentally responsible and sustainable investments. The program, called the Principles for Responsible Investment, will guide the investment decisions of those who control Harvard’s $33 billion endowment.
Faust said Harvard would also become a member of the Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit that requires entities to disclose the risks that increased greenhouse gas emissions pose to their operations. The school will also establish a “sustainability committee” led by senior faculty “to shape the next generation of sustainability solutions and strategy on our campus,” and pledge to continue to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
“In addition to our academic work and our greenhouse gas reduction efforts, Harvard has a role to play as a long-term investor,” Faust wrote.
The main activist group that had been pushing Harvard to up its climate change game applauded the announcement, but noted that it is a far cry from what they had really wanted: a commitment from their school to divest from climate-change-causing fossil fuels.
“Harvard’s decision to invest in climate solutions is an important step forward, but the truth is that we still have $32.6 million directly invested — and millions more indirectly invested — in the fossil fuel industry’s climate destruction, science denialism, and political obstruction,” Divest Harvard said in a statement. “We need to divest from the problem as we invest in new solutions.”
Divest Harvard is one of more than 300 campaigns at universities across the country that call for their schools to move away from fossil fuel use. The group has been pushing for the change since it was founded in August 2012.
The campaign became national news only recently, however, when Faust released a letter in October explaining why the university would not divest. In that letter, Faust made a number of points as to why the university would remain investors in fossil fuels, including that divestment would hurt Harvard’s bottom line; that fossil fuel companies wouldn’t be particularly harmed by the decision; and that the school’s endowment is not an instrument to impel social or political change.
The issue only grew from there when ClimateProgress obtained exclusive video of Faust offering additional defense of her decision not to divest, claiming that fossil fuel companies do not block clean energy companies from implementing their innovations. In fact, they do — fossil fuel companies fund policy groups that work in a numerous states to roll back existing clean energy standards, and have spent more than $2 billion lobbying Congress since 1999 for issues like anti-climate legislation.
The Nation then published an open letter from PhD student Benjamin Franta to Faust, debunking her reasons not to divest. The Nation’s Wen Stephenson called the letter “direct, personal, unsparing — and, I’ll add, principled and brave.”
Harvard has still not committed to divesting, but its announcement Monday did include signs that it would take on a greater role to combat climate change.
“Harvard has a vital leadership role to play in this work,” Faust wrote. “As a university, it has a special obligation and accountability to the future, to the long view needed to anticipate and alter the trajectory and impact of climate change.”
The message sounds encouraging for climate activists. But according to environmental group 350.org, the message does not come with many actual requirements. The Principles for Responsible Investment program, for example, is merely a pledge, and does not require Harvard to sell specific funds. And the Carbon Disclosure project, though novel, is “unlikely to convince fossil fuel companies to make the fundamental changes to their business plans necessary to avert catastrophic climate change,” the group said in a statement.
350.org has been leading the campaign for fossil fuel divestment since 2010. So far, nine colleges, 22 cities and a number of religious institutions and other groups have pledged to divest.
The divestment movement is also gaining traction with students from other colleges. At Washington University in St. Louis, students on Tuesday began an overnight sit-in protest outside their campus’ academic building, calling on the school to cut ties with Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal corporation. According to a Facebook post from the group WashU Students Against Peabody, the protest is ongoing as of Wednesday.