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Endowed With a Choice

By Chloe S. Maxmin and Alli J. Welton

Last week The Crimson staff published an opinion piece stating that divesting university endowments from fossil fuel companies is a tactic too extreme to be used in the fight against global warming. According to The Crimson, Harvard has “divested only a few times in the past, and has done so predominantly in instances of human rights abuses being linked to their investments.” That is to say, The Crimson believes that climate change isn’t a human rights issue.

The Crimson must learn the basics of the climate crisis and its impact on our world before publishing such an article. The world’s foremost experts on human rights have long acknowledged that these issues are at the very core of the climate crisis: The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2008 stating that “climate change poses an immediate and far-reaching threat to people and communities around the world and has implications for the full enjoyment of human rights.”

William E. McKibben ’82, former President of The Crimson, of told a Sanders Theater audience on Thursday that South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu had called global warming the human rights issue of our time and urged a massive divestment campaign. Tutu, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the South African anti-apartheid struggle, says his continent is being devastated by droughts which have only intensified with climate change—despite the fact that most Africans contribute very little emissions and have done almost nothing to cause global warming.

Andrew C. Revkin, another speaker at Sanders on Thursday, posted on his New York Times blog that the Earth is expected to have a carrying capacity of 1 billion people if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at our current rate. That means that six out of every seven people currently on this planet will be dead if we do not stop global warming. Is this not an issue of human rights? Moreover, the majority of these deaths will likely occur in developing countries that have done little to cause climate change. Superpowers like the U.S. have been polluting for decades, ignoring the consequences of our actions—and now innocent people will pay the price with their lives. How is this just?

Clearly climate change is a mammoth human rights abuse and a deep injustice. The facts demand bold action for all humanity. We have already caused the Earth’s temperature to rise by 0.8 degrees Celsius. This has resulted in freakish weather across the globe, from the massive wildfires that devoured Colorado this summer, to the drought currently driving Midwest farmers to ruin, which has caused world food prices to increase 10 percent.

Even if we somehow stop emitting greenhouse gases today, global temperatures would likely rise another 0.8 degrees because of the planet’s slow feedback systems. The UN optimistically designates 2 degrees C as the “safe” limit for planetary warming, but current trends of fossil fuel use and expansion put us on track for a 6 degree temperature rise—literally, hell on earth—before the end of the century.

Globally, we can emit only 565 Gigatons more carbon into the atmosphere without breaking that two degree limit. Yet fossil fuel companies hold a terrifying 2795 Gigatons of carbon in their proven reserves. Thus, to avoid irreversible climate catastrophe, we need to keep 80 percent of those reserves locked underground. Are fossil fuel corporations going to willingly concede 80 percent of their expected profits to prevent climate disaster? Of course not. While the technological solutions to the climate crisis are ready and waiting, fossil fuel corporations have corrupted our political system and made it impossible to pass even the weakest legislative efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. It is time for us to attack the root of this problem: the companies themselves.

Divesting our endowment from fossil fuel corporations is not merely a logical response to the threat of global warming. It is the only moral response to a global human rights crisis and the only way to uphold the values of our Harvard community.

Chloe S. Maxmin ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Mather House. Alli J. Welton ’15 lives in Dudley House. They are both on the board of Students for a Just and Stable Future.

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