Harvard Is the Climate Crisis

Harvard Is the Climate Crisis

Hypocrisy at Harvard reigns supreme as students demand divestment. 


The Guardian recently reported that Harvard University has increased its investments in fossil fuels by almost seven fold over the last few months.

I co-founded Divest Harvard almost three years ago. We campaign for Harvard to divest its $36.4 billion endowment (the largest educational endowment in the world) from fossil fuel companies. Why? At the institutional level, it is both immoral and irrational for our University to invest in these firms. Harvard educates us for the future. The effort, money, and resources spent on our education is subverted by its support for companies that threaten to obliterate our futures. It is also hypocritical for Harvard to green our campus, pioneer clean tech research, and educate students about climate change while profitting from fossil fuel extraction. On the macro level, investing in the fossil fuel industry endorses its business model, which is fundamentally opposed to a livable planet. It also enables climate denial and the industry’s capture of our political system. We demand divestment because that is the only acceptable position for an educational institution.

Divest Harvard students have met with members of the Harvard Corporation three times. We have met with the Harvard Management Company, and we have spoken with President Drew Faust during 10-minute appointments at her bi-semesterly office hours. In our meetings, we’ve heard the same arguments repeated incessantly. We’ve been told to “thank BP.” We’ve heard excuses that, if the University divested from fossil fuel stocks, others would demand divestment from sugar! Most of Harvard’s arguments are summed up in Faust’s October 3, 2013 statement opposing divestment.

During these same three years, close to 70,000 people have signed onto the Divest Harvard campaign. The national divestment movement has grown to over 400 campaigns. Divestment pledges from Stanford University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund highlight the more than $50 billion in assets that have been divested from fossil fuel companies to date. Contrast this with Harvard’s dismissal of Divest Harvard and its recent purchase of fossil fuel stocks. In trying to make sense of this, I have come to understand Harvard’s reaction to the fossil fuel divestment movement as an example of the same kind of thinking that created climate change in the first place.

Here’s how to think like Harvard:

First: Refuse to question your fierce commitment to the status quo. Harvard charges forward instead of stepping back to confront profound contradictions in its own practices. Harvard’s direct holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies jumped from $11.8 million to almost $80 million last quarter. This contradicts its responsibility to students’ futures and self-professed commitment to sustainability. This is akin to a government, whose primarily role is the protection of its people, spending billions of dollars on fossil fuel exploration with no regard for its catastrophic implications.

Second: Reject systemic thinking in order to trivialize the challenge of change. Harvard tweaks its behavior instead of creating new operational frameworks. For example, Harvard said that the University can be more effective through shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies, rather than divestment. The problem is that the past shows that engagement with fossil fuel companies is ineffective and incapable of achieving the fundamental energy transition we need. President Faust has introduced campus-wide sustainability practices, making Harvard one of the greenest campuses in the US. But this is nonsensical when you consider that much of Harvard’s campus could be underwater relatively soon if we continue on our present course. At that point, lightbulbs won’t matter.

Similarly, the US government crafts regulations that fall dramatically short of what is needed to avert the worst of climate change. The EPA’s new regulations on coal power plants would reduce CO2 emissions 30 percent of 2005 levels by 2030. To limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the UN-designated “safe limit,” the US needs to reduce emission 57 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Obama’s commitment to climate is encouraging, but the hard truth is that, to avoid climate catastrophe, we need far bolder action.

Third: Suppress dialogue to maintain control. Since the fall of 2013, the Harvard administration has refused to engage in public dialogue about divestment. In fact, Harvard demonstrated that it would rather arrest students then engage in open debate with Divest Harvard and the wider University community. The administration will now only meet with us off-the-record.

Others in power use the same strategy. Remember during the 2012 Presidential Elections when no candidates uttered the words “climate change?” Or take the vast amount of climate denial that is spread to suppress and confuse action on climate?

I remember the moment when I learned I was accepted to Harvard. I was in my mom’s car. We pulled into an ally behind a restaurant so I could connect to Wifi on my iPod Touch. I read the email, my heart skipped a couple of beats, and I burst into a smile. Coming from a rural Maine high school, I was overwhelmed by the honor of a Harvard acceptance. In my mind, Harvard symbolized the world’s knowledge, wisdom, and truth. I imagined Harvard as the embodiment of action guided by reason.

Harvard President Drew Fast said in her October 3rd statement: “The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.” As a Harvard Senior, I am ashamed to see that our endowment—and hence the entire University—does impel social and political change: social change that accepts the status quo at the expense of everything that we love; political change that privileges corporations over people and oligarchy over democracy. Instead of being a beacon of truth and rationality, Harvard exemplifies the institutional processes that turned climate change into climate crisis.

I am an activist because I refuse to believe that this is the best that Harvard can do, just as I refuse to believe that this is the best that our civilization can do. Right now, Harvard is the climate crisis, but there is still time for Harvard to be the solution.


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