As Students Lead, Will Harvard Follow?

The university’s divestment is powerful, but it must do more to model climate leadership, write Ilana Cohen and Tim Wirth.

October 27, 2021
 
 
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Last month, the world’s richest university announced it would divest from fossil fuels. In the weeks since, we’ve seen a clear domino effect, with a slew of major universities and asset managers following suit: Boston University, the University of Minnesota, the MacArthur Foundation, Aberdeen University, California State University, Dartmouth College, Loyola College, Reed College and, most recently, Vassar College, the Ford Foundation and Mount Holyoke College have all committed to divestment.

Now, the question is not whether more institutions will divest but rather who will be next. The power of Harvard University activists’ victory can’t be understated; as our most influential institutions embrace their responsibilities on climate change, it’s clear the end of the fossil fuel era is within reach.

Yet while Harvard has taken a critical step forward, it must go further to fully satisfy those responsibilities and provide a meaningful model for its peer institutions. Following the lead of those like Cambridge University, Harvard must publish a clear timeline for divestment. The public has a right to know when Harvard will have fully phased out its remaining indirect investments in fossil fuels -- which represent up to 2 percent of the endowment, a whopping $840 million. Until they’re eliminated entirely, those investments will continue to violate Harvard’s legal mandate to invest prudently and in accordance with its charitable mission, clearly contravening its goal of higher education and stated environmental and social commitments.

With divestment promised, Harvard also has a chance to meaningfully decarbonize its endowment. This begins with strengthening its hole-ridden net-zero by 2050 endowment pledge, which does far too little, much too late. Its emphasis on net-zero, not zero, emissions creates loopholes for continued investment in carbon-intensive industries. This lack of seriousness, or what Greta Thunberg might call a “blah blah blah” attitude, on decarbonization puts Harvard at odds with Massachusetts’s and the nation’s emissions reduction goals and hampers its ability to rise to the challenges of the future.

It also means making concrete and transparent commitments to shifting money away from polluters and toward a just regenerative economy, as its moral and fiduciary duty require. The university’s vague language about seeking to invest in funds that support the transition to a “green economy” leaves much to be desired. Harvard should disclose what technologies and energy sources it will invest in and at what scale, and how it will ensure those investments are ethical and equitable -- if they center the renewable and community-based energy solutions we need, and benefit those on the front lines of climate change. Its divestment and investment commitments, moreover, must extend to the third-party managers of its endowment and be reflected in how it votes its proxies.

It should come as no surprise that Harvard has withheld the details of how it will align its investments with its social responsibility, the law and the urgency demanded by climate science. Or that Harvard remains too stubborn to even say the word “divest” and, in our opinion, willfully ignores the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to undermine climate policy and perpetuates the fallacious idea that the industry has a role in a sustainable future.

Perhaps that’s because the industry’s influence pervades the university, with several members of the Harvard Corporation maintaining or having recently held ties to the fossil fuel industry. It funds everything from programming at the Harvard Kennedy School to energy and geologic research in the earth and planetary sciences department and the Harvard environmental economics program. And since Harvard refuses to make its knowledge of where faculty funding comes from available to the public, we have no idea just how much of Harvard’s research is sponsored by the industry, which has a record of lying to the public, or how many conflicts of interest exist as a result. The university also continues to elevate the voices of a minority of faculty members who have expressed disdain for divestment and reward them with positions of authority around the university’s climate policy.

The hypocrisy is glaring: How can Harvard or any university claim to prepare students for our futures while it embraces the companies destroying that future? And that’s not to mention that Harvard has invested in other industries, like the prison industrial complex, that perpetuate the same extractive and exploitative economy fueling climate change and injustice.

We’ve seen that when Harvard acts, it can have an enormous impact; when it fails to act, that can have an enormous impact, too. That’s why the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign is demanding clarity around Harvard’s plan moving forward and calling on Harvard to establish a clear timeline and details for its divestment process, and approach this process and its other ties to the fossil fuel industry with transparency and a focus on justice and institutional responsibility.

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Harvard’s divestment is already making history. But Harvard must do more than ride on the coattails of its students’ and community members’ success to show true leadership on the existential issue of climate change and injustice. Activists have handed Harvard an opportunity to lead on climate. The world is watching to see if it will truly learn from its mistakes and act with the transparency, urgency and foresight that its reputation, this crisis and Veritas demand.

Bio

Ilana Cohen is an organizer of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and a student at Harvard College. Tim Wirth is a former U.S. senator from Colorado, a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers and a graduate of Harvard College.

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