Harvard’s Response to the Climate Crisis

FAS White Paper – November 2019

Executive Summary

We have entered an era of climate disruption, with little time left before it spins out of control, destabilizing global human society and causing widespread violence and suffering. The world that our youngest and most vulnerable are inheriting is one of mass extinction, instability, and increasing inhospitality to human life. This inheritance is a crime against ourselves, our children, future generations, and the entire living world, a crime against nature unmatched in human history. In response, Harvard must treat the climate crisis as the world-historical catastrophe it is.

Up to now, Harvard has primarily approached the crisis from a mainstream, business-as-usual, incrementalist approach. As the wealthiest university in the world, Harvard should take a much more ambitious ethical lead. Leading in this way requires, as soon as possible, a forceful statement of a plan to divest. We therefore propose:

The Corporation should instruct the Harvard Management Company to withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue, investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels, or in companies that provide direct support for such exploration and development; over a reasonable period of time, extend those instructions to advisers of investment vehicles used by Harvard’s endowment, including commingled funds where Harvard is not the sole investor; and ensure that any adviser who may be unwilling or unable to comply is replaced by one who is willing to carry out these instructions.

In considering reasons for divestment, we should attend to two considerations: Is some industry in which Harvard invests engaged in behavior that is ethically abhorrent, to a sufficiently high degree to warrant divestment? Is some societal change so urgently needed that divestment should be considered as a means for helping to bring it about?

With respect to the fossil fuel industry, the answer is “yes,” in both cases: First, industry leadership has knowingly engaged in a campaign of misinformation spanning the last three decades, in order to delay serious action to combat the climate crisis. That industry continues to invest huge sums in the exploration and development of new fossil fuel reserves, even though it is well known that the burning of less than all known reserves would result in planetary catastrophe. This behavior bespeaks so deep a disregard for human welfare that continued investment in this industry is ethically untenable. Second, a widespread divestment campaign would help create the conditions necessary for legislation and treaties to be enacted that would curb the destructive behavior of the fossil fuel industry. If we divest, and do so with a clear and forceful statement of the convictions that lead us to do so, that divestment campaign will receive a significant boost. In the face of these reasons, standard arguments against divestment are quickly revealed to be flimsy; we consider and reject several of the most common.

There are additional high-impact steps Harvard can and should take over the coming years, along four critical dimensions: leading by example, research, teaching, and stimulating public discussion. We offer over two dozen examples of such initiatives.

President Bacow has perceptively noted what a powerful “megaphone” Harvard possesses. We close this Paper by asking our colleagues to consider what would happen if we use this megaphone, coupling an announcement of a plan to divest with an ambitious set of additional initiatives. If we use our megaphone in that way, we could help to initiate a rapid shift in higher education globally, and thereby help to bring about the profound shifts in our cultural mores and political institutions that surviving the climate crisis will require. This is not only a task fitting of a great university; for moral, pedagogical, and intellectual reasons alike, it is a task we must embrace.