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 Columbia, NYU, 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.