At midnight on November 16, the Harvard Undergraduate Council announced that the student body had voted 72 percent in favor  of divesting the University’s $30.7 billion endowment  from fossil fuels.
The vote made Harvard College the first school in the nation to pass a student referendum in support of fossil fuel divestment. The fossil fuel divestment movement has been heavily promoted by Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org , to sold-out audiences on his current 21-city Do the Math tour . Fossil fuel divestment campaigns currently exist on roughly fifty campuses across the country, and many more are expected to launch in coming weeks.
At Harvard, the results of the referendum demonstrated strong student support for fossil fuel divestment. It was the first referendum in six years to qualify for student government elections at Harvard, and one Undergraduate Council representative described the election’s 55 percent voter turnout as a “record in recent memory.” In comparison, a 1990 referendum for divestment from South African apartheid found 52 percent support among Harvard students with only 38 percent turnout. The passage of the referendum makes fossil fuel divestment a binding position of the Harvard Undergraduate Council, though the response of Harvard University’s President Faust to the vote is still unknown.
The Divest Harvard  campaign, organized by the campus chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future  and supported by Better Future Project  and 350.org , has called for fossil fuel divestment as a means to help solve the climate crisis. Students aim to leverage university divestment to decrease the political and economic power of fossil fuel corporations by dissuading other investors and stigmatizing the industry as a rogue industry whose profit model is simply incompatible with society.
Members of Divest Harvard have pointed out the hypocrisy of educational institutions like Harvard using their money to support industries that threaten the future of their students by causing global warming. They also make the argument that fossil fuel investments put Harvard’s endowment at great risk. Given that only 565 more gigatons  of carbon can be burnt if the planet hopes to stay under 2 degrees Celsius warming (the upper limit set by the UN), 80 percent of the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies’ apparent reserves—worth $20 trillion—are untouchable. This creates a huge carbon bubble  in the market. Harvard lost 30 percent of its endowment from risky investing when the housing bubble burst in 2008, and the Divest Harvard campaign has argued that the University is repeating its mistake by investing in fossil fuels.
Though President Faust has so far refused to meet with students to discuss fossil fuel divestment, she stated in a public forum that Harvard only divests in “the most extreme of circumstances” and that no existing issue made her feel “compelled to divest” at this time. The precedent that President Faust referred to includes divestment from tobacco, genocide in Darfur, and (in part) apartheid South Africa for public health and human rights reasons. Students in Divest Harvard have argued that the climate crisis is extreme enough to warrant divestment, citing a recent report that projected 100 million deaths  as a consequence of fossil fuel usage over the next 18 years.
While Harvard students wait to hear whether the passage of the referendum will win them a meeting with President Faust, the news of the referendum has already had an impact on the national fossil fuel divestment movement. Inspired by Harvard’s example, students pushing for divestment at other schools such as Amherst College and Brandeis University have already begun to discuss running their own referendums.
Students at Harvard and elsewhere are cognizant that time is running short to meaningfully address climate change. The strong support of the Harvard student body in the recent referendum gives the Divest Harvard campaign a mandate to push forward with the fossil fuel divestment campaign. If the administration continues to obstruct them, Harvard students have a strong base from which they can build and escalate as the continued inaction of our institutions increases the urgency of the climate crisis.