EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was produced for Student Nation, a program of The Nation Fund for Independent Journalism dedicated to highlighting the best of student journalism. For more Student Nation, check out our archive or learn more about the program here. StudentNation is made possible through generous funding from The Puffin Foundation. If you’re a student and you have an article idea, please send pitches and questions to [email protected]
For nearly a decade, we petitioned, protested, and politicked. We met with members of the Harvard Corporation, several of whom have personally profited from the fossil fuel industry, only to hear them repeat the same empty talking points. We risked and incurred arrest storming the Harvard-Yale field in the largest university divestment protest ever. Most recently, we filed a legal complaint against Harvard with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. What did we get from Harvard in return? A whole lot of obfuscation and some half-measures. Or so it seemed until last week. In a surprise announcement last Thursday, Harvard finally announced that it would divest from fossil fuels.
For the world’s richest university—and one with a clear history of lagging its peers on pressing issues of social injustice, like divestment from apartheid South Africa—to finally embrace fossil fuel divestment represents an incredible triumph for climate activists. It clearly demonstrates what sustained student pressure can do. The move sends a powerful signal that the costs of clinging onto what is inevitably becoming the bygone fossil fuel era are simply too steep. “If divestment can happen for Harvard University with an endowment the size of a small nation, then other universities, state governments, and powerful actors have no excuse,” said Isa Flores-Jones, a Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard alumna.
Yet, even as it gave great cause to celebrate, Harvard’s sudden change of course was also deeply puzzling. It left many—us activists included—wondering, what made the final difference? What was the tipping point for an institution so steadfast in its opposition to divestment?
Really, there was no one single tipping point. Our victory followed a series of critical moments, each of which helped transform public discourse in favor of divestment and bolster pressure on Harvard to act. With our historic protest at the 2019 Harvard-Yale game, we brought divestment into national view in a new arena, spotlighting the complicity of Harvard, Yale, and all of their fossil-fuel-invested peers in the destruction of their own students’ futures. Five months and two landslide pro-divestment faculty votes later, Harvard announced its pledge to make the endowment greenhouse-gas-neutral by 2050. It was a radically insufficient commitment but still a testament to how a movement of students, faculty, and alumni reshaped the conversation, debunking the myth that endowments are apolitical and revealing the need to align Harvard’s financial practices with its espoused commitments to tackling climate change.
Meanwhile, investors around the world were increasingly realizing that fossil fuels were a reckless financial bet and publicly recognizing the merits of divestment. A growing appetite to hold the industry accountable, evident in the wave of divestment commitments preceding Harvard’s and an ongoing flood of climate litigation and regulation targeting fossil fuel companies, has forced the industry to face a deeply uncertain future. As a result, it became near impossible for Harvard to continue claiming that divestment was a risk that could imperil the endowment.
If any single action helped push Harvard over the edge, it may have been our legal complaint. Filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office in March, the complaint argued that fossil fuel investments aren’t just immoral but illegal: Universities have a legal duty to invest responsibly and in a way that serves their own charitable missions, it points out, and investing in fossil fuels does neither. The threat of legal action, together with the national attention the complaint garnered, seems to have struck a chord. In announcing Harvard’s plan to divest, President Lawrence Bacow essentially endorsed the complaint’s core argument, writing, “Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe [fossil fuel] investments are prudent.”
To some extent, the question of what made the final difference in Harvard’s divestment doesn’t matter. As Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizer Morgan Whitten put it, “Harvard didn’t lead, it conceded. Whether there was a ‘final blow’ is beside the point—it was the force of years of zealous campaigning and unrelenting pressure that pushed them over the edge.” The combination of public pressure tactics, the increasingly clear reality that investing in fossil fuels makes one a social pariah—a feat of the last decade of divestment activism—and growing shifts toward a decarbonized economy have simply made it unaffordable for even the most powerful institutions to buck divestment.
“Harvard’s divestment from fossil fuels is a long-awaited leap forward for one of the world’s most prestigious institutions,” said Chloe Maxmin, a cofounder of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and currently Maine’s youngest state senator. “Harvard’s divestment announcement is monumental, a headline that I honestly thought I’d never see. But, most importantly, it demonstrates the powerful leadership of Harvard’s students: Divest Harvard. The university is finally following the wisdom and leadership of youth organizers. It’s about time.”
Nonetheless, Harvard has much farther to go if it wants to claim the mantle of climate leadership. For starters, it has failed to put forward a clear timeline for phasing out its remaining indirect investments in fossil fuels, which continue to contravene its duties under state law. Moreover, President Bacow and the fellows of Harvard College continue to obfuscate when pressed to acknowledge and grapple with the fossil fuel industry’s pursuit of profit at our communities’ and the planet’s expense. Harvard’s refusal to use the word “divestment” and marriage to a fundamentally false notion of shareholder engagement as an effective tool to further decarbonization reveals an enduring fear of alienating the industry, even as Harvard’s latest move fuels a global movement aimed at repudiating the industry’s very existence.
Fortunately, our campaign is more prepared than ever to hold accountable Harvard and the fossil fuel industry—whose continued attacks on climate science and research imperil academic freedom and flout the motto of Veritas—and to extinguish the industry’s toxic footprint across higher academia. And divestment is only one side of the coin: Now, we have a unique chance to radically reimagine how Harvard and other universities can reinvest their endowments to accelerate a regenerative economy, on a timeline that reflects the urgency of the climate crisis and environmental injustice.
For divestment and climate activists looking to learn from our victory at Harvard, we’ve shown that identifying and consistently exploiting an institution’s pressure points—whether it’s their public image or relationships with donors or legal mandates—can compel divestment. Activists can and should deploy and expand the resources and tactics made available by other successful campaigns, including the option of filing a legal complaint against institutions refusing to divest. And, of course, the value of coalition-building with allied constituencies and organizations for divestment can’t be overstated.
The greatest takeaway from this win, though, is far simpler: Persistence is powerful. As Isha Sangani, an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, said, “This victory shows that we are slowly but surely tipping the needle.”