The movement for fossil-fuel divestment has swelled to what an Oxford University study calls the fastest-growing divestment movement in history, one with the potential to shift the political ground beneath the fossil-fuel lobby’s feet. There are more than 500 campaigns globally—including on some 400 college and university campuses in the United States, along with city and state governments and major religious institutions. Ten colleges and more than twenty cities—including Seattle, San Francisco and, as it happens, Cambridge, Massachusetts—have committed to divest.
Back in October, Harvard University President and distinguished American historian Drew Gilpin Faust, having faced more than a year of increasing calls by students, faculty and almuni to divest from fossil fuels, released a statement in which she explained why Harvard would do no such thing, at least not on her watch. Reactions to her position—by critics ranging from climate activist Tim DeChristopher (now at Harvard Divinity School) and Columbia’s Todd Gitlin (an alum) to former Oberlin president and National Science Board member James Lawrence Powell, among others—pointed to its logical inconsistency, not to mention blindness to moral, political and economic facts. Nevertheless, as others have noted, Faust’s arguments have become the de facto orthodox positions of the anti-divestment crowd.
On campus, in Cambridge, the student-led Divest Harvard campaign (I’m involved with the alumni wing), has repeatedly invited Faust to engage in a public forum on divestment—and has repeatedly been rebuffed. So earlier this month, the students confronted Faust after a public speech, and captured the conversation on video. During the exchange, incredibly, Faust denied that the fossil-fuel industry obstructs progress on clean energy. The video made a stir—thanks to leading climate blogger Joe Romm, who demolished that assertion. Faust felt compelled to respond to the students in an e-mail, as reported by the student newspaper The Crimson. Needless to say, relations between the students and the president’s office are somewhat tense. The students—and their faculty and alumni supporters—are far from backing down or going away. If anything, they’re more resolved than ever to raise the pressure—and the stakes.
Into this steps a 27-year-old Harvard graduate student, Ben Franta, a member of Divest Harvard’s student board, with a qualitatively different kind of response to Faust: direct, personal, unsparing—and, I’ll add, principled and brave. Last month, Franta met privately with Faust in her office—not for the first time—to discuss divestment. Two days later, he wrote her an impassioned letter, which he shared with me and others, in which he rebutted her points one by one and appealed to her, again, for an open debate. She has not responded. The moment she gets up and speaks publicly about divestment from fossil fuels, she told Franta, it will end up on the front page of The New York Times.