Climate

Will Harvard Divest From Fossil Fuels? Students And Alumni Demand Answers In Week Of Action

CREDIT: 350.org

Harvard students sit in for fossil fuel divestment in February, 2015.

Environmental activists at Harvard are hoping to flip the equation on global warming this week: instead of climate change bringing rising temperatures, they hope adding heat to the discussion will change the climate of the University’s approach to the issue.

Last week was the first annual Climate Week at Harvard, a university-sanctioned slate of events meant to elevate the discussion around climate change. This week, Heat Week is offering a much fiercer palette: a mobilization and sit-in by students, alumni, and other activists meant to spur the University into divesting from fossil fuels. Participants are engaging in nonviolent, civil disobedience by blockading Massachusetts Hall, which houses the office of President Faust, as well as University Hall, the other administrative building in Harvard Yard.

“We’re asking Harvard: Whose side are you on? What side of history are you going to be on?” Annie Schugart, media co-coordinator of Divest Harvard and a Harvard student, told ThinkProgress in an email.

This is a debate that has been simmering on campus for several years. In 2012, Harvard became the first school in the country to pass a student fossil fuel divestment referendum. In that vote, 72 percent of the study body weighed in favor of the University divesting its fossil fuel funds. Throughout this growing momentum, university leaders have held the line that fossil fuel divestment is neither warranted nor wise.

Schugart said she didn’t really hear much about Climate Week, and while conversation around the issue is welcome, “divesting from fossil fuels is something that needs to be done immediately.”

“Harvard invests so much in our futures, but its decision to invest in fossil fuel companies acts in direct opposition to this investment,” she said. After years of discussion with little progress, Shugart said its “time to step up the heat and show Harvard we aren’t stopping until Harvard divests.”

The fossil fuel divestment movement has targeted universities and their holdings of oil, gas, and coal stocks. Harvard, as is often the case, would be the holy grail. It is also the alma mater of climate activist and author Bill McKibben, who along with eight other alumni spent Monday night in the Alumni Association.

In a letter addressed to Philip W. Lovejoy, executive director of the Alumni Association, the former students say Harvard has “rebuffed” the requests of current students for a public discussion about divestment, and the alumni association has also refused to engage.

“[If] it’s wrong to wreck the planet then it’s wrong for Harvard to profit from that wreckage,” states the letter. “And that the Harvard students who have been the brave leaders in the divestment fight so far deserve the support of us Harvard graduates.”

At $36.4 billion, Harvard holds the largest endowment of any college in the world. To date, Harvard President Drew G. Faust has said the school does not plan to divest, but would rather engage with companies and corporations to improve their environmental behavior and greenhouse gas profiles. In January, it came to light that the university had actually increased its stake in publicly traded fossil fuel companies by sevenfold in the third quarter of 2014 to a total of $79.5 million. This number only includes SEC filings, and most of Harvard’s endowment is not held in direct investments, meaning fossil fuel investments could amount to far more. According to Jamie Henn, co-founder and communications director for 350.org, “there is little doubt that [Harvard] holds hundreds of millions of dollars in fossil fuel companies.”

At a panel discussion on Monday billed as part of Climate Week, Faust called the challenge of climate change “profound” and said confronting the dangers it poses “is among the paramount tasks of our time.”

“Universities have a crucial role to play: We act through our research, our educational programs, our embrace of sustainability on our campus, our engagement with the wider world,” she said.

While the panel steered clear of divestment for the most part, Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor and co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” infused it into the debate after nearly 40 minutes.

“I think we’re at a point where we need disruptive politics,” Oreskes said. “I don’t see how we can have this conversation we’re having here and still be continuing to invest in companies that are building more fossil fuel infrastructure … that is locking us into the very grave problem [of climate change] that we claim to be very very worried about.”

Joseph Hamilton, a Harvard Law student with Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, told ThinkProgress that while it’s great to have as much discussion about climate change as we can, Climate Week was “definitely a deflection.” He said it had a marked absence of voices from the social movement or from the student body.

“It’s no coincidence that they announced Climate Week after we announced Heat Week,” he said. “It’s no coincidence that there’s no serious engagement with the divestment issue.”

Hamilton, who is participating in the sit-in this week, is part of a group of seven student plaintiffs that have filed a lawsuit seeking to compel the University to divest its fossil fuel holdings. In March, a Massachusetts trial court sided with Harvard Corporation and dismissed the lawsuit. The plaintiffs are preparing to file an appeal.

Hamilton said the concerns of those participating in Heat Week and those filing the lawsuit are the same.

“We are both trying to hold Harvard accountable for failing to live up to its mission,” he said. “The lawsuit is an attempt to have judicial and legal intervention and Heat Week is more about moral standing.”

Hamilton commended other schools, like nearby MIT, for having open debates about divestment, but said just talking about the problem isn’t enough. As Bloomberg notes, while the divestment movement is gaining steam, it is still far from widely accepted. While Syracuse recently said it would no longer invest in fossil fuel companies and Stanford is no longer buying coal stocks, fewer than 30 universities worldwide have formally endorsed the campaign.