Other Universities Are Divesting From Fossil Fuels—but Harvard Is Doubling Down on Them

Other Universities Are Divesting From Fossil Fuels—but Harvard Is Doubling Down on Them

Other Universities Are Divesting From Fossil Fuels—but Harvard Is Doubling Down on Them

It’s time for Harvard to kick the carbon lobby out of the Kennedy School. But don’t hold your breath.


This week, the global climate-justice movement launches #BreakFree2016, a wave of mass direct action aimed at some of the most dangerous fossil-fuel infrastructure projects on the planet. Last month, students at Harvard and other schools offered a preview of sorts, targeting a different kind of fossil-fuel infrastructure—the financial kind.

On April 12, four Harvard students were arrested inside the fishbowl lobby of Boston’s Federal Reserve building, headquarters of the Harvard Management Company (HMC), the arm of the Harvard Corporation that manages the world’s largest university endowment. Part of a recent surge of civil disobedience by students demanding fossil-fuel divestment—including at ColumbiaNYU, and UMass Amherst—the four were members of the persevering Divest Harvard campaign (I’ve been an alumni supporter from the outset). They were staging a sit-in to protest, peacefully yet firmly, HMC’s recent decision to anchor a new private-equity fund investing in the restructuring and recapitalization of distressed oil and gas companies.

That same day, by coincidence, it was reported that Yale University has taken its first steps away from fossil-fuel investments—a move that Stanford, Oxford, and a host of other prominent institutions of higher learning have already taken. Harvard, for its part, continues to move in the opposite direction. In the face of our mounting global climate emergency, it appears that Harvard, like the fossil-fuel industry itself, is doubling down on business as usual.

To invest in a company is to vote one’s confidence in its profit model and its practices. With billions of innocent lives on the line, the fossil-fuel industry’s profit model and political practices—namely, its decades-long campaign of denying climate science and obstructing serious climate policies—are not just unsustainable, they’re unconscionable. Given what we have known for decades about climate change—indeed, given what ExxonMobil and other corporate members of the American Petroleum Institute have known for decades about climate change—such denial and obstruction must be understood as criminal. And not merely a crime against shareholders, but a crime against humanity.

There’s good reason to believe—as James Hansen, NASA’s former top climate scientist, and 18 co-authors have recently concluded—that even a global average temperature rise of 2 degrees Celsius (the internationally accepted red line) could very well set in motion disastrous, irreversible consequences within the coming decades, not centuries. And it gets worse. Experts, at places like the International Energy Agency and the World Bank, have been warning us for years that we’re on track not for 2 degrees, but 4 degrees or more within this century. Despite the remarkable gains of renewable energy worldwide, and the promise of new technologies, we are nevertheless racing toward worst-case scenarios.

Indeed, this is what the “landmark” agreement adopted in Paris in December—hailed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—essentially ratified. The leaders in Paris finally acknowledged that 2 degrees spells catastrophe for much of the world’s population, beginning with the poorest, and admitted that the limit we really should be aiming for is 1.5 degrees, if that’s even possible. And yet, those same world leaders in Paris did nothing to strengthen their existing pledges, which come nowhere close to putting the world on a path to achieving even the 2-degree limit. In other words, the Paris Agreement—signed at a UN ceremony in New York on April 22—ratified the yawning gap between what science says is necessary and what politicians, and protectors of the status quo, say is possible.

Meanwhile, under the Obama administration’s corporate-friendly “all of the above” energy policy, the United States became the largest oil producer on the planet and massively expanded fracking (see Bill McKibben’s recent Nation cover story, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Chemistry.”) Sorry, you can’t claim to take climate science seriously and at the same time vastly expand your national production of oil and gas. That’s not a credible climate plan. It’s a form of climate denial.

It’s the same kind of denial that the Harvard Management Company, the president of Harvard University, and prominent members of the Harvard faculty—including some of its leading voices on climate policy—are engaged in. You can’t claim to take the climate crisis seriously while remaining invested in business as usual.

Indeed, the Belfer Center at Harvard’s Kennedy School and its Project on Climate Agreements—headed by professor Robert Stavins, an economist who has openly consulted for fossil-fuel companies on the side—are among the leading mouthpieces of this brand of denial. Stavins is an influential voice on global climate policy, and his high-profile presence in Paris, where he spoke on industry-sponsored panels on the sidelines of the summit meeting and gave numerous media interviews, was celebrated by the Kennedy School press office and the university’s official news outlet, the Harvard Gazette.

And yet Harvard blinked not an eye when the International Emissions Trading Association and six of its corporate members (including Chevron, Shell, TransCanada, and other oil and gas companies) funded much-touted analysis of international emissions trading policy published by Stavins and colleagues in the run-up to Paris under the auspices of the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements. (Stavins himself has done paid consulting for Chevron.) The industry-friendly policy advocated by that study—recommending the “linkage” of national and regional emissions-trading programs—made it into the Paris Agreement. No wonder Stavins was so pleased, as he enthused to the Gazette and other media outlets (as well as on his blog) about the outcome in Paris. “Linkage,” the paper argues, will make market-based trading mechanisms more “cost effective”—i.e., profitable—and thus allow for greater ambition within the Paris framework; just not enough ambition to close the aforementioned gap. In other words, fealty to markets, and corporate profits, prevails over science.

This is nothing personal against Stavins, who is no doubt a decent chap. And I have no reason to believe he’s done anything unethical, by Harvard’s standards. He’s simply playing by the rules. He’s part of the system—engaged in business as usual. The Harvard Environmental Economics Program, also at the Kennedy School and run by Stavins, is funded by Chevron, Shell, BP, Duke Energy, and other fossil-fuel interests. The Belfer Center’s Geopolitics of Energy Project, headed by Meghan O’Sullivan, a former George W. Bush national security official who was deeply involved in Iraq policy, is funded by BP. And this is far from an exhaustive list of such fossil-fuel industry relationships at Harvard.

The point is this: It’s not just that Harvard is invested in the fossil-fuel industry; the fossil-fuel industry is invested in Harvard—perhaps because it sees a return on the investment. And of course it isn’t only Harvard. The student-led divestment campaign at MIT has called out extensive fossil-fuel industry funding on its campus, including at the MIT Energy Initiative, and it was revealed last fall that ExxonMobil is among the funders of Columbia University’s high-profile Center on Global Energy Policy.

I spoke with Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University whose groundbreaking 2013 study exposed how fossil-fuel interests fund what he calls the climate change “countermovement,” including climate-science denial. Even in mainstream academic institutions, “the financial steering of intellectual inquiry is a big issue,” Brulle told me. “The academy is really dependent on external funding sources, and it drives a certain research agenda. I’m not saying that the people they fund are dishonest or illegitimate. But this has a systematic effect, in that it heightens certain voices and leaves others invisible, or reduces their staying power, within the academy. And so you end up with a biased system.”

Where, exactly, is the line between industry-funded policy analysis and industry lobbying? It’s one thing for industry to fund scientific and technological R&D—which, if tightly controlled, is sometimes justifiable, despite inevitable conflicts of interest. But it’s another thing entirely when the industry (and corporate lobby) with the most to lose from urgent and aggressive climate action—indeed, with its whole business model on the line—is funding what purports to be independent climate-policy analysis, but which looks an awful lot like paid advocacy, by one of the world’s leading climate economists at one of the world’s most influential universities.

Perhaps, given our global climate emergency and this industry’s track record of deceit and obstruction, it’s time for Harvard to kick the carbon lobby out of the Kennedy School. But don’t hold your breath. Harvard President Drew Faust’s position on divestment has been quoted approvingly by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, i.e., the carbon lobby. Theodore V. Wells Jr., prominent attorney and member of the Harvard Corporation, has been hired by ExxonMobil to defend the oil giant in the New York attorney general’s investigation into what Exxon knew as far back as the 1970s, and what it disclosed to shareholders, about the causes and risks of climate change.

So don’t expect Harvard to break free of the status quo anytime soon. On this one, Harvard is the Exxon of higher education.

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