“Extraordinarily Rare” Is Not an Excuse

As you walk around campus today, you will see Divest Harvard’s posters.

Over the past year, Divest Harvard has mobilized an activist campaign on campus. The movement’s goal is to divest Harvard’s endowment from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies. Why? Because climate change is an issue that defines our generation’s future. The fossil fuel industry’s business model depends upon continuing to extract fossil fuel deposits—the major contributor to climate change—while avoiding accountability for the consequences of its products or of its extraction methods. Our generation and those that follow will pay the price as the industry uses its political clout to block national climate legislation. Divestment would demonstrate that we do not support an industry whose business model corrupts our government and threatens our future.

Over the past year, Divest Harvard has given students at Harvard University the ability to vote on a series of referenda calling for divestment. In these elections, 72 percent of College students and 67 percent of Harvard Law students supported the measure. In addition, over 170 faculty and over 540 alumni have raised their voices for divestment. Unfortunately, the leaders of the University have brushed aside these voices. President Faust says that divestment is only used in “extraordinarily rare circumstances.” Nannerl Keohane, a trustee serving on the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, told us in our meeting with the CCSR that we should encourage fossil fuel companies to change instead of divesting. She went so far as to suggest that we should “thank BP” for their efforts in developing renewable energy.

Today we say to President Faust: Climate change is an “extraordinarily rare circumstance,” and it demands the extraordinary action of divestment. To Dr. Keohane: BP sold its wind farms six days before you advised thanking them and exited the solar industry two years ago. As long as BP and similar companies continue to focus on fossil fuel extraction despite what we know about climate change, we should not be thanking them.

Today we say: We must divest.

Divestment is a tactic that can effect meaningful change. The goals of the movement are twofold. First, we are highlighting the destructive and deeply irresponsible practices of the fossil fuel industry. If an industry refuses to support the future of life on Earth, then we must refuse to support the industry. Second, divestment sends a strong political message that climate change is a crisis that needs to be addressed today; it creates the public platform necessary to hold politicians accountable to the voices of their constituents.

In many cases, it would make sense to use the power of shareholder advocacy to change the actions of a company. If a certain company treats its workers unfairly, shareholders should appeal to the company to change its ways. In this case, we are asking companies to change their fundamental business model. Shareholder pressure will not be enough. If companies will not stop willingly, we have no choice but to divest.

Divestment is the best way for conscientious shareholders like Harvard to send the message that our society must no longer support a fossil fuel addiction. We've realized that we cannot rely on fossil fuel energy without causing irreversible climate change. Yet the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry has left us with no way out. Fossil fuel lobbies block almost all legislation aimed at breaking our dependence on fossil fuels, delaying the transition to a low-carbon energy economy. We are left with few affordable and widespread alternatives to fossil fuels despite almost universal agreement that we must slash our carbon emissions in order to combat climate change. Harvard cannot be complicit in this industry’s practices.

The fossil fuel industry’s culture of political hostage-taking, obstructionism, lack of accountability, and unacceptable climate destruction has continued for far too long. Our generation needs and deserves real dialogue from our leaders, and Harvard needs to be at the forefront of this dialogue.

This semester, Divest Harvard is calling on President Faust to appear alongside other trustees, students, alumni, and faculty in a public forum on divestment to discuss Harvard’s role in pushing for the political solutions we need to combat climate change. Our future is at stake, and our community deserves the opportunity to ask questions and to hear real answers about the opportunities divestment would grant us.

Our campaign continues to grow day by day, and our call to action is urgent. We call upon students, faculty, and alumni to join us in building a powerful movement against the fossil fuel industry.

Joseph G. Lanzillo ’16 lives in Dunster House. Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Leverett House. Pennilynn R. Stahl ’15 is a joint women, gender, and sexuality studies and English concentrator in Mather House. They are members of Divest Harvard.

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