It’s Not (Yet) Too Late for Harvard to Lead

By James G. AndersonNaomi Oreskes, and Kirsten A. Weld

September 20, 2019

As Harvard faculty members, we write to applaud the vision and commitment of our students participating in the Global Climate Strike today. The ecological crisis now at hand presents us all with a grave existential threat — and an urgent need for meaningful collective action.

We call on the Harvard Corporation, and, importantly, the Harvard Management Company, to display similar vision and commitment, and to take seriously the abundant and mounting evidence in favor of fossil fuel divestment. Incremental, business-as-usual approaches are simply insufficient for confronting the unprecedented ethical and practical challenges posed by the climate crisis.

Harvard has divested from morally abhorrent actors in the past — namely, apartheid South Africa and the tobacco industry. In the case of South Africa, Harvard waited until the global consensus on divestment was so overwhelming that its continued financial involvement proved embarrassing. This time, will Harvard instead decide to lead?

Among the many arguments supporting divestment is the fact that the climate crisis is an issue of human rights and discrimination. Certain human rights are considered universal and sacrosanct — the right to life, health, water, food, housing, and an adequate standard of living. It is no exaggeration to say that these rights are already in jeopardy for millions, indeed billions, of people, and that this state of affairs is set to worsen dramatically if we do not act now. The poor (a majority of whom are women), children, the elderly, and people of color suffer vastly more from climate disruption than well-to-do, predominantly white populations, who have the power and means to more safely insulate themselves from the crisis — for the time being. Fossil fuel corporations, supported by investments from wealthy institutions like Harvard, are deepening eco-apartheid around the world, not mitigating it. How this aligns with the University’s stated values is anyone’s guess.

University administrators have insisted, repeatedly and for years, that Harvard will have a more positive impact on the climate crisis by working with the fossil fuel industry, not divesting from it. We have asked for evidence of this assertion, insofar as shareholder or investor engagement is concerned, and received none. But because their business model relies upon the continued extraction of coal, oil, and gas, fossil fuel companies are not, and cannot be, good-faith partners in the work of decarbonizing the planet. For this reason, and because investments in the industry are increasingly risky in light of the coming shift to renewable energy, more than 1,000 institutions, pension funds, and sovereign wealth funds have divested or begun the process of divesting. That list includes the University of California system, which has just announced a full divestment of its endowment and pension investments from fossil fuels.

We have also been told that divestment is a poor strategy, as it would be a merely “symbolic” gesture with negligible financial impact on the fossil fuel industry. Of course it is symbolic: The point is exactly to leverage Harvard’s considerable cultural authority to inspire other major institutions to divest, thus fundamentally shifting the terms of debate about the role of this industry in perpetuating and deepening the climate crisis. How else is political change supposed to come about, at the scale that is needed? Yet divestment is not only symbolic: Just 100 companies are responsible for over 70 percent of global emissions. Targeted divestment would make a world of difference.

We look forward to a robust discussion of these issues at faculty meetings in schools throughout the University this term. It is our hope that this discussion will yield a new approach, one commensurate to the scale of the problem at hand.

In the meantime, we will stand with our students at the Climate Strike.

James G. Anderson is a Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry. Naomi Oreskes is a Professor of the History of Science. Kirsten A. Weld is a Professor of History. The writers are members of Harvard Faculty for Divestment.