President Faust's History Problem

The implications of climate change are increasingly well documented: Rising sea levels, more severe storms, and increased food scarcity are just a few. We have already begun to see the impacts of climate change, and we know that it often affects the world’s most vulnerable populations. We also know that fossil fuel companies hold enough carbon in their proven reserves to push our atmosphere well past the widely recognized “safe” limit for planetary warming (an increase of 2 degrees Celsius). Finally, we know that a portion of Harvard’s endowment is invested in fossil fuel companies, which means that we are part of this destruction—and that we have a chance to do something about it.

Harvard’s President Drew G. Faust continues to reject student, faculty, and alumni calls to divest our endowment from fossil fuel extraction companies. President Faust’s justification for this rejection is nothing new. It is the same set of arguments that Harvard’s administration made in the 1970s and ’80s in response to student pressure to divest from companies that supported the South African apartheid regime.

In 1984, then-Harvard President Derek C. Bok claimed there was “no realistic possibility” that the university’s divestment from companies supporting apartheid would contribute to ending apartheid. He was wrong. Though Harvard achieved only partial divestment from companies supporting apartheid, the move was part of a wider, effective campaign to end apartheid. In fact, according to Nelson Mandela, the University of California’s divestment was a turning point in abolishing apartheid.

Faust now tells us that, contrary to this precedent, divestment would have no effect on fossil fuel companies. Denying our ability to have an impact on climate change does a disservice to student activism and poses a danger to the world. It is also incorrect: A recent study from researchers at Oxford University found that divestment campaigns can have a serious impact on the fossil fuel industry, as they stigmatize companies and take away their political legitimacy.

Faust, like Bok before her, denies these effects and recommends an ineffective alternative to divestment. In 1984, Bok suggested that instead of divesting, Harvard should encourage change by voting on shareholder resolutions and engaging in a dialogue with corporate executives. Students and other activists met the idea with criticism, but now Faust is using her predecessor’s failed argument to portray shareholder advocacy as an alternative to divestment. By investing in fossil fuel companies, the argument goes, we gain a platform to encourage change within the industry. There are two problems with this approach. First, Harvard simply hasn’t done enough to pursue it. For example, the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility has voted against the establishment of a committee that would make recommendations on how Exxon Mobil can become an environmentally sustainable corporation. Second, it doesn’t work: The change required of fossil fuel companies is too fundamental for shareholder pressure to be effective, and the timeline is too short.

Faust also continues to perpetuate the same myth Bok embraced—that Harvard’s investments are politically neutral. In 1984, President Bok argued that Harvard should not divest from companies doing business in South Africa because “universities should not attempt to use their political and economic views on other organizations and individuals beyond the campus.” The current administration similarly claims to resist divestment for fear that it would cause Harvard to be perceived as a political actor.

This ignores the fact that investment, like divestment, is a political position. Profiting from climate wreckage is not neutral. By investing in companies whose purpose is fossil fuel extraction, we are endorsing that activity. In fact, Harvard does recognize this premise: It’s the reason we’ve divested in the past. In addition to South African apartheid, Harvard has also divested from tobacco companies and companies linked to genocide in Darfur. In fact, it seems even Bok came to recognize divestment as an appropriate response: In addition to achieving partial divestment from South Africa, he led Harvard to divest from tobacco companies for moral reasons, describing the decision to divest from tobacco companies as “motivated by a desire not to be associated as a shareholder with companies engaged in significant sales of products that create a substantial and unjustified risk of harm to other human beings.”

Climate change does precisely this, and on a massive scale: It is wrecking the planet, threatening our future, and causing great harm to many people. Nine colleges have already committed to divest from fossil fuels, along with many cities, counties, religious organizations, and other institutions. Harvard has an opportunity to lead the way and a responsibility to take action. We should recognize this responsibility and divest now.

Kelsey C. Skaggs, a student at Harvard Law School, is a member of Harvard Law School Students for Sustainable Investment.