Students at Harvard University are urging the administration to divest from fossil fuels. (Flickr/Kelly Delay)
We are taking our future into our own hands.
Harvard students, alongside thousands of others worldwide, are pushing our university to divest from fossil fuels. Our message is simple: if we do not uproot the political influence of the fossil fuel industry, we will face catastrophic climate change.
Harvard University President Drew Faust made a statement on October 10 opposing divestment and siding with the fossil fuel industry. We look to leaders like President Faust to support efforts that better the world and are disappointed that she has chosen the wrong side of history.
President Faust’s response reveals fundamental misunderstandings about our movement. We do not expect divestment to have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies, as President Faust implied. Divestment is a moral and political strategy to expose the reckless business model of the fossil fuel industry that puts our world at risk. It exposes the fossil fuel industry’s influence on our democratic system, its perpetuation of climate change denial, and its continued extraction of hydrocarbons that heat our planet. Divestment calls on citizens to build a powerful climate movement and pressure elected representatives to enact meaningful legislation.
The time has come for institutions to take a stand on climate change by divesting. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I report (IPCC WGI) shows that the world is currently warming ten times faster than at any other point in the last 65 million years. The globe is on track to warm over four degrees Celsius by 2100, a level that is incompatible with current civilization. We need political climate action now, and neither Harvard nor any other university can responsibly rely solely on research and campus greening to push forward such action. Claiming that research and education alone can achieve necessary political legislation is idealistic.
When the science of human-induced global warming became clear two decades ago, fossil fuel companies could have adapted their business to be compatible with a stable future. Most major environmental groups advocated for this shift with substantial effort and resources. Yet fossil fuel corporations continued to extract carbon reserves in the pursuit of profit, foisting unfathomable costs on our generation and beyond.
In dismissing our calls, President Faust accuses our movement of hypocrisy because “we are extensively relying on those [fossil fuel] companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.” But we do not claim to be above the system in which we live. It is nearly impossible not to use fossil fuels because industry-crafted policies block a transition to renewable energy sources. Divesting is a step towards transitioning to the energy economy that we need. Institutional action is necessary to confront systemic failures like the climate crisis.
President Faust wrote that Harvard should not be a “political actor” and insisted that endowments are not tools for social change. This myopic view denies Harvard’s proud history of political action, which includes divestment from tobacco corporations and oil companies supporting genocide in Darfur as well as partial divestment from apartheid South Africa. More importantly, it fails to acknowledge that investments are inherently political whether we like it or not. Claiming neutrality at this moment in history is claiming ignorance of the world’s problems.
Many leaders, including President Faust, suggest shareholder engagement with the industry rather than divestment. But Harvard has proven this strategy’s inadequacy. In 2011, its Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility voted against a shareholder resolution to establish a committee within ExxonMobil that would shift the company towards environmentally sustainable energy. Harvard considered the resolution “unreasonable in asking the company to address such a major shift in its business focus.” Given this decision, it’s hard to believe that shareholder engagement can ever convince an industry to write off most of its assets or even convince the fossil fuel industry to confront climate change.
Our generation and the generations to follow will judge today’s institutional leaders on whether they chose to defend our future. True leaders do not cling to the status quo of climate degradation and false neutrality—they transform the world for a better tomorrow.
We call on Harvard and institutions around the world to stand up for our futures.
Alex Suber argues that divestment can't be viewed as a panacea for fossil fuel consumption.