Harvard’s Fossil Fuel Investments Aren’t Just Immoral — They’re Illegal, Too

Harvard’s Fossil Fuel Investments Aren’t Just Immoral — They’re Illegal, Too

Harvard’s Fossil Fuel Investments Aren’t Just Immoral — They’re Illegal, Too

If it’s wrong to destroy our futures, then it’s wrong for our universities to invest in that destruction.


Last week, the Biden administration announced a massive infrastructure plan directly aimed at accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy sources, signaling a national commitment to tackling the climate crisis. But not everyone is ready to do their part. Harvard, the world’s richest university, refuses to ditch the fossil fuel holdings that have allowed it to profit from climate destruction.

That’s why Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard submitted a complaint last month asking the Massachusetts attorney general to hold Harvard legally accountable for its complicity in the climate crisis.

Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard (FFDH) is a student campaign dedicated to climate justice. We believe that the climate crisis is one of the gravest existential threats of our time, and that large-scale systemic change is necessary to combat it.

More and more Americans are connecting the dots between fossil fuel projects and the climate emergency, as recent protests over the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota demonstrate. More than 50 years after students organized the first Earth Day teach-ins and rallies, student fossil fuel divestment campaigns have again made campuses worldwide a front line in the fight against climate change.

The law can be a powerful ally, but only if its protections are actually implemented. Recent climate lawsuits brought by young people against the government and by cities and states against fossil fuel companies aim to make good on the law’s promises. As top law enforcers and protectors of the public interest, state attorneys general have a special role to play—just look at the climate fraud lawsuits in New York and Massachusetts, or the lawsuits against tobacco companies in the 1990s.

Complaints filed with state attorneys general are a routine feature of public interest advocacy, but until now they have not been used by proponents of divestment. We believe they represent an opportunity to demonstrate to regulators and the public why fossil fuel investments are already illegal under existing laws.

This strategy could be replicated at universities around the country, since laws governing institutional investment are the same in nearly every state. After Cornell students filed a complaint in November 2019, the university announced a moratorium on new fossil fuel investments. Boston College students filed their own complaint last year, and students at other schools are expected to do so in the future.

The Harvard Corporation is a 13-member board that controls Harvard’s $42 billion endowment. The values that should guide its investments are clear: Harvard’s mission statement envisions a “more just, fair, and promising world.” Yet the corporation supports an industry whose entire business model hinges on environmental destruction and injustice.

Like other public charitable institutions, Harvard is legally bound to serve the public interest in exchange for privileges such as tax exemption. Harvard is also required to manage its endowment prudently, in order to further its mission of educating young people and creating a more just world.

Fossil fuel investments are incompatible with those obligations. Fossil fuels are not only the primary contributor to climate change; their extraction and refinement also emit toxic pollutants—often in Indigenous and low-income communities, where environmental racism is most acutely felt. For decades, fossil fuel companies have obscured the scientific reality of climate change and thwarted climate policy; in recent years they have also attacked climate science and funded research—including at Harvard—that tacitly furthers their agenda. Sea level rise caused by climate change even threatens Harvard’s campus.

Fossil fuel stocks will inevitably lose value as governments rein in fossil fuels. The coal sector has already declined dramatically; oil and gas stocks have begun their descent. Even beyond the catastrophic future these investments preserve and nurture, it is no longer financially prudent for Harvard—or anyone else—to invest in fossil fuel companies. Nor is it ethical for members of the Harvard Corporation to maintain significant personal financial ties to them.

The urgency of the climate crisis is undeniable; without immediate and dramatic changes to the status quo, parts of the planet will be uninhabitable by century’s end. Those who suffer most from the heat waves, drought, sea level rise, and extreme weather events that a reliance on fossil fuels engenders are those least responsible for the crisis.

Of the many fragilities the Covid-19 pandemic laid bare, our species’ inability to respond to a crisis should stand out. We are living precariously in a climate system on the brink of transformation. We have not evolved to survive in the world we are barreling into, at breakneck speed, as we continue to inject carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When the planet is on fire, it’s wrong for an institution with as much wealth and international power as Harvard—especially one that claims to better the world—to stand with the arsonists.

For nearly a decade, FFDH has protested, petitioned, met with university administrators, and even stormed football fields. These actions have won majority support from students and faculty. And still, Harvard refuses to budge.

Divestment strikes at the root of the problem: If it’s wrong to destroy our futures, then it’s wrong for our universities to invest in that destruction.

Decades ago, by pressuring institutions to divest from South African holdings, student activists worldwide helped bring the apartheid regime to its knees. As peer institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Brown, Cornell, and the University of California lead the way on fossil fuel divestment, Harvard’s inaction only grows more untenable. If Harvard won’t willingly abide by its commitment to a just and stable future, the law must compel it to.

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