When I first met President Lawrence Bacow in one of his office hours sessions last fall to discuss divesting Harvard’s nearly $40 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry, his message was clear: For now, the world is powered by fossil fuels, and idealistic kids can’t change that.
He pointed to the lightbulb above our heads. Right now, he told us, we need fossil fuels for energy and electricity, which heats our classrooms and keeps our lights on. As he spoke, I heard the passionate and informed call of my peers, professors, and alumni reduced to a gross oversimplification.
It does not take an expert—as Greta Thunberg shows, it can take only a clear-eyed teenager—to know that with millions facing climate-induced displacement by 2050 and the world on the verge of the sixth mass extinction, we are in an emergency situation. Our call to action is one informed by this stark ecological reality and represents a deliberate strategy to confront it; yet Harvard ignores us. It is long past time for our universities to come on board.
In fact, the ignorance can seem willful. Elite universities like Harvard claim to be leaders in fighting climate change, yet maintain deep financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. No amount of research or on-campus energy efficiency can mitigate the damage done by investing in the continued existence of the companies driving the climate crisis and the global injustices it perpetuates. At the most basic level, serious climate action means ending investments in the system of extraction and exploitation that these companies’ model of business represents. Yet even before divesting, universities must acknowledge the dollars they are putting into dirty energy.
So long as they keep their money in the dark, our most privileged universities evade public accountability for investment practices that are morally unjustifiable and contradictory to their educational missions. Currently, 99 percent of Harvard’s endowment remains hidden from the public. We cannot know whether all or none of that 99 percent is invested in the fossil fuel industry. But we do know that in 2015, Harvard invested tens of millions in fossil fuels, only announcing a “pause” of direct investments after seven Harvard students filed a lawsuit enjoining their holdings. And according to Colin Butterfield, head of natural resources at the Harvard Management Company, Harvard still invests in fossil fuel companies indirectly through outside funds. Scaled up, that means hundreds of millions of Harvard’s dollars could be propping up the fossil fuel industry.
Meanwhile, our allies at GRAIN, a nonprofit supporting small farmers and community-based food systems, have uncovered that Harvard has holdings in nearly 300,000 hectares of farmland in the Brazilian Cerrado. Such holdings support the kind of industrial agricultural businesses responsible for the deforestation in the Amazon and the displacement of indigenous communities. The university’s refusal to cease such investments is deeply disturbing. Not only is Harvard failing to lead on the environment and human rights; it is an active participant in their systemic degradation
While Harvard has yet to take even the first step of disclosing its climate-hostile investments, many institutions are stepping up as climate leaders. The 1,118 institutions that the Fossil Free Network identified as divesting are collectively valued at over $11 trillion. More than 45 US colleges have divested, and networks representing over 7,000 universities have declared climate emergencies. This week, the University of California announced plans to divest its $13.4 billion endowment and $70 billion pension funds from fossil fuels, citing the financial risks posed by fossil fuel investments. Still, Harvard continues to put short-term profit before halting planetary and human destruction, as well as before a long-term financial strategy for the university.
President Bacow and former president Faust express concerns around politicizing the endowment by divesting from fossil fuels. At their best, these concerns remain a weak cover for an unpublicized fear of alienating conservative donors. At their worst, they mask fears of upsetting the dirty-energy interests entrenched in the university’s everyday operations—from ExxonMobil lawyer Ted Wells’s role on the Harvard Corporation to oil and gas companies’ sponsorship of campus research and events.
Harvard aims to educate citizen-leaders, yet it refuses to show such leadership itself. It is sheer hypocrisy to invest in companies degrading the futures for which it prepares students. It is no less hypocritical that Harvard utilizes its endowment both to further the innovative research into climate solutions it claims to support and to sustain the existence of companies undermining this very work. Furthermore, since Harvard refuses to publicly disclose all but 1 percent of its endowment, it prefers to keep this moral contradiction, and all its fossil fuel entanglements, hidden in the dark.
If President Bacow wants to have “reasoned discourse” around the ethics of the university’s investment practices, then Harvard must fully disclose its fossil fuel investments. If we are to trust Harvard to be a leader in the battle against climate change, it must first earn that trust by disclosing the extent of its financial ties to the industry causing the crisis. Then, it must end its morally unjustifiable investments in the industry.
More than a change in capital, divestment represents a change in societal values. As with tobacco and apartheid South Africa, fossil fuel divestment makes a powerful political statement. It stigmatizes fossil fuel companies, removing their social licenses to operate.
And divestment is not an isolated movement; from the youth climate strikes and Extinction Rebellion to Ende Gelände and indigenous climate movements worldwide, it’s part of a global call for transformative justice. It’s a call for institutions to stop upholding dirty energy’s interests. It’s a call for reinvestment in a future that makes fossil fuel workers integral to the energy transition and takes leadership from the poor communities, communities of color, and women who are disproportionately impacted by climate change and the potential “climate apartheid” scenario.
Today, Harvard has the chance to put itself on the right side of history. With the unique privilege of its global reputation and vast endowment comes an opportunity to challenge the unsustainable status quo that treats our planet and people as disposable. It can either hear our voices or continue to hide its money in the dark until the effects of climate change are so devastating that they render divestment meaningless.
It is up to all of us to hold Harvard and its peer institutions accountable and to fight for a more just and stable future. On September 20, we’re walking out of our classrooms and striking to demand divestment and serious climate action. Now, we’re calling on our peers, faculty, alumni, and community allies at Harvard and around the world to join us. Together, let’s point President Bacow toward the light.
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