Just three days after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its dire plea for global action on climate change, you closed the door on the University’s biggest chance to make a difference—divestment from fossil fuel companies. Certain segments of the Harvard community, which stand in overwhelming support of divestment, requested a public forum to discuss the future of the world’s largest university endowment. You rejected our request for open dialogue while putting forth many misleading and incorrect statements about divestment.
The suggestion that divestment from fossil fuels would be ineffective is contradicted by both experience and logic. Divestment played a critical role in turning the tide against South Africa’s apartheid regime and in spurring a regulatory response to the lies and political manipulation of the tobacco industry. A recent Oxford University study concluded: "In every case we reviewed, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation." According to those researchers, the “stigmatization process, which the fossil fuel divestment campaign has now triggered, poses the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain."
As Harvard students, we understand that America’s legal and democratic institutions have broken down. The fossil fuel industry, like the tobacco industry before it, has pursued a corrupt agenda of misinformation and political lobbying designed to prevent scientific consensus from informing public policy.
As a result, Congress has proven incapable of passing any meaningful climate legislation, instead offering billions in subsidies to destructive companies at taxpayer expense. Our generation cannot wait any longer to unwind the fossil fuel industry’s stranglehold on Congress. We must use influential, rational, and functioning institutions like Harvard to revoke the social license of the most dangerous and intractable industry in the world.
You claim that it is inconsistent to divest from the companies whose fossil fuels we rely on. The real inconsistency is to vainly hope that Harvard’s groundbreaking research will somehow solve climate change. Our research and education will not achieve the political change needed as long as the University invests in corporations that peddle climate denialism and actively prevent Harvard’s contributions from impacting public policy.
It is profoundly hypocritical to pay lip service to Harvard’s “strong institutional commitment to sustainability” while profiting from the destruction of our planet. If you are truly concerned about future generations of students, we recommend you value the future of their planet over the diversity of your corporation’s portfolio.
You argue that divestment would be inappropriately political. The biggest misconception about the endowment is not that divestment would be financially destructive but that our continued investment in the fossil fuel industry is politically neutral. Investing in the wreckage of our planet is inherently political.
Last semester, Harvard Law Students voted two-to-one to support immediate divestment of the University’s endowment from direct holdings in the top 200 fossil fuel companies and to divest from commingled funds within the next five years. Today, we renew our call for divestment and reiterate that neither we nor this issue are going away. With over 1300 Harvard students, 173 faculty, and 571 alumni signed on for divestment, this is not an issue that can be ignored or swept under the rug. We will continue to draw the world’s attention to Harvard’s destructive investment practices—because if it is wrong to wreck the planet, it is wrong to profit from climate destruction.
This is a battle over the purpose of Harvard University. The students, faculty, and alumni in favor of divestment believe Harvard should be more than a hedge fund. We believe that the Harvard motto, “Veritas,” is more than just a slogan. We are only doing what Harvard has taught and prepared us to do—standing up for what is right, even in the face of strong opposition. And we believe it will take the world’s most renowned academic institution to reign in the world’s most wealthy, powerful, and destructive corporations.
Jacob Lipton JD ’14, Sam Caravello JD ’15 and Ted Hamilton JD ’16 are members of HLS Divest Harvard