A Coalition of Responsibility

Before Thanksgiving Break, Harvard students made history as the first college to have a referendum on fossil fuel divestment. During the UC election, 72 percent of voting students supported the campaign calling on Harvard to divest from the top 200 publicly traded companies that own the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. The divestment campaign, spearheaded by Divest Harvard, began on campus just at the beginning of this semester. By now, Harvard is one of over one hundred campuses around the country in this growing movement.

In the coming weeks, Divest Harvard will focus on building a coalition of responsibility. We want the other key stakeholders in our university community to join with students in asking the administration to withdraw economic support from an industry that threatens all of our futures. We want to see the immense economic, intellectual, and moral power of our university used to question the fossil fuel industry’s reckless behavior.  

President Faust has said that she does not feel compelled to divest at this time because Harvard only divests in “extreme circumstances.” Yet research sponsored by 20 governments around the world suggests that climate change is already causing 400,000 deaths per year, and fossil fuel usage is expected to cause 100 million deaths over the next 18 years. A new report from the World Bank shows that our world will warm over 4 degrees Celsius if society does not reign in carbon emissions—and the effects would threaten civilization as we know it. Harvard divested from genocide in Darfur, Big Tobacco, and apartheid in South Africa for human health and social justice reasons. Climate science, to which many of our own faculty have contributed, now indicates a scenario of the utmost gravity, should we remain on course with current levels of carbon extraction. There is hardly a more “extreme” set of circumstances imaginable.

As our coalition gathers strength, there will be arguments made against divestment. These arguments should be carefully considered in order to understand their merits and shortfalls. For example, Jane Mendillo, the CEO of the Harvard Management Company, has indicated that Harvard investment decisions are already subjected to screening criteria based upon environmental, social, and governance considerations. We invite Ms. Mendillo to share her screening methodology with the wider community. We know that Harvard’s money is invested in Petrobras, which holds a monopoly on oil production in Brazil and is a leader in deep-water oil drilling. It is also invested in Vale S.A., which in the 2012 Public Eye Awards was voted the most evil company in the world.  It would be helpful to understand what kind of framework of environmental and social criteria give passing grades to the practices of such companies so that we can work together to strengthen the screening process.

Another argument has been made that divestment could cost our endowment approximately $7.5 million in annual returns. If we ignore the likelihood of making up for this shortfall through other investments, this would be a legitimate argument. However, the effects of global warming will cost immensely more than that. Boston—according to sea level rise projections—is a hotspot for the destructive consequences of the rising oceans.  The Boston Globe reported that “officials have begun mapping low-lying areas and critical systems that are most likely to be inundated. The maps show that if sea levels rise just 2.5 feet, it could take little more than a Nor’easter to put much of the Back Bay, East Boston, South Boston, Chelsea, Cambridge, and elsewhere underwater, including much of Logan International Airport and the financial district.” The destructive impact from Sandy has been estimated at more than $50 billion dollars for New York. Storms like Sandy will only become more powerful and frequent as the Earth warms. What will it cost the university if it can no longer exist near the banks of the Charles River?

At the heart of many other arguments against divestment is the assumption that the devastating consequences of carbon extraction are—and will remain—external to the balance sheets of the fossil fuel companies. Let’s recall that the concept of externalities as a moving target. A century ago, companies could endanger their workers, and the costs were considered external to the balance sheet. With increased regulation of labor practices, from wages to Occupational Health and Safety to health benefits, what was once external is now accepted as within the financial and social obligations of the corporation. As Americans experience more monster storms, droughts, and wildfires, the reckless practices of the fossil fuel industry will be challenged. These companies will be required to take financial responsibility for the consequences of their actions, at which point the value of their stocks will plummet.

Divest Harvard aims to create a coalition of the responsibility and establish Harvard University as a beacon in this historic struggle against global warming. We want to engage with arguments against divestment and educate the community about the importance of the movement. Our courage and moral vision can send an urgent message to allies near and far that the time has come to stand together in a new coalition of responsibility.

Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, a Crimson editorial editor, lives in Mather House. Christopher E. Round is a GSAS Special Student in Systems Biology. They are both part of Students for a Just and Stable Future.

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