This Undergraduate Council election season, you will see three referenda questions on the ballot. Question 1 asks whether you support the campaign calling upon Harvard to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies and reinvest in socially responsible funds. Harvard has the largest endowment in the world, and we know for a fact that it is invested in fossil fuel companies. With fossil fuels linked directly to global climate change, Harvard is directly funding an industry that threatens our future. Voting “yes” on Question 1 is your way to call on our university to divest from climate change and reinvest in our future.
Harvard’s investments in fossil fuels sit uneasily with a recent report highlighting our university’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, promote environmental sustainability, and “build a better future.” We now have over 78 building projects across campus that qualify for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, which have helped lead to a 16 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. However, as Harvard continues to establish itself as a leader in campus sustainability, it must be ready to engage in sustainable practices at all levels—especially with regards to our investment activities.
A fast-growing movement at 47 campuses across the country is calling on colleges and universities to remove fossil fuel investments from their endowment portfolios. Unity College has already divested, becoming a leader in this new movement. Harvard now has the opportunity to lead, as well. Either we can divest from the fossil fuel industry, which will help fight the climate crisis and mitigate further warming, or we can divest from the future of our students by supporting corporations that contribute to the increased incidence of extreme weather and threaten to cut the carrying capacity of the earth to one billion people.
At the Undergraduate Council and Harvard Graduate Council General Meeting on October 21st, President Faust said that Harvard considers divestment is considered: "Only in the most extreme of circumstances.” DARA, an independent, non-profit organization, recently released a report sponsored by 20 governments that shows that the human death toll from climate change could exceed 100 million by 2030. Most of these deaths are the direct result of burning fossil fuels. It is hard to imagine a circumstance much more extreme. Moreover, climate change is an equity issue. Most of the adverse effects of climate change disproportionately impact developing countries, while the majority of greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution have come from industrialized nations.
The movement to divest from fossil fuels continues to grow and could have significant social and political implications. In 2009, cap-and-trade successfully passed the House but failed in the Senate. This was partially due to substantial resources levied against climate action by some of the fossil fuel companies that are now being targeted by this campaign. Divestment may not pose an immediate threat to the annual turnover of the biggest companies, yet it does help to undermine the social and political capital of a powerful industry.
More than anything, divestment is a moral statement. As students come together around the country to support divestment, we are showing our campuses, communities, and politicians that we see climate change as a serious threat to our future. Harvard also has a precedent for divesting from abusive industries: we divested from Big Tobacco for human health reasons; we divested from and genocide in Darfur. The University also partially divested from South Africa during apartheid. Harvard should continue to uphold these values today in the face of the climate crisis.
This UC election, you have the option to send a clear message about our future. Voting “yes” on Question 1 may seem like a small gesture, but our individual voices come together to form a collective and powerful call to action. We respect our institution, and, as President Faust wrote, “We must continue to work together as a university to develop new approaches and solutions that will make a positive difference at Harvard and in the wider world.” Harvard’s divestment can be a part of that difference.
Oliver T. Kerr, GSAS ’13, is a graduate student in East Asian Studies. Christopher E. Round is a GSAS Special Student in Systems Biology. Harold N. Eyster ’16 lives in Matthews Hall. They are all members of Students for a Just and Stable Future.