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An unexpected letter from University President Drew G. Faust explaining why Harvard will not divest from fossil fuel companies has catalyzed discussion and provoked direct responses, including one from Seattle Mayor Michael P. McGinn.
Last Thursday, McGinn published an open letter to Faust titled “Let’s End This Crisis” expressing disagreement with her explanation of why Harvard will not divest.
“We're the first generation to see the effects of climate change, and the last generation who can do anything about it,” McGinn wrote. “To refuse to use every tool at our disposal in this fight—to embrace inaction—is to endorse a trajectory that will lead to suffering, privation, and calamity. We owe it to those who our institutions and investments serve and will serve in the future to do everything we can to prevent this crisis.”
Faust’s Oct. 3 letter detailed nearly half a dozen reasons why she does not think divestment is appropriate, including concerns that it would politicize the University’s $33 billion endowment, distract from other sustainability efforts, appear hypocritical given the University’s dependence on oil, eliminate Harvard’s power as a voting shareholder, and hurt investment returns without significantly impacting oil companies.
McGinn wrote that, like Faust, he must consider his institution’s interest in people like pensioned city employees who protect those who rely on its investment. Still, he added that fossil fuel investments are likely to become increasingly risky and “have negative impacts for investors as well as society.”
Seattle, along with a handful of other major U.S. cities, has already stopped investing its pension funds in fossil fuel companies.
In addition to questioning Faust’s financial concerns, McGinn challenged her resolution to “favor engagement over withdrawal.”
“You argue that engagement with fossil fuel companies will yield greater benefits than divestment,” he wrote. “These companies, with their corrosive influence on politics, funding of climate-deniers, and abhorrent human rights records, will ‘engage’ on climate change, while continuing to extract fossil fuels that we cannot burn if we wish to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.”
McGinn’s letter is not the only public response to engage the national media. The Nation, a liberal political magazine, published a blog post criticizing Faust’s claim that Harvard maintains political neutrality by not investing in fossil fuels.
“Faust absolutely took a side,” wrote author and activist Tim M. DeChristopher, who is a Harvard Divinity School student. “I strongly suspect that time will show that she chose the wrong side of history.”
The Nation also published an open letter to Faust from three members of Divest Harvard, a student group advocating for fossil fuel divestment.
Hannah M. Borowsky ’15, a Divest Harvard member who did not write the letter but serves as the group’s faculty outreach chair, said that public statements by prominent figures will advance the divestment movement.
“It was really exciting to read [McGinn’s] letter,” said Borowsky, who is also a Crimson editorial editor. “I think it’s really important that other leaders address Drew Faust’s statement.”
As their movement grows, activists point to the historical precedence of past divestment movements.
In his letter, McGinn referenced the 1990 announcement by former University President Derek C. Bok that the University would divest from tobacco companies.
“Harvard has done this before,” McGinn wrote.
Borowsky said that today’s divestment movement parallels those that preceded other decisions to divest, particularly the removal of funds from some companies that did business in apartheid South Africa.
“The apartheid divestment movement was huge,” Borowsky said. “It lasted for a decade.”
She added that today’s support for divestment from fossil fuels is growing even faster.
“I think it’s something that young people are really latching on to,” she said.
—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @syweinstock.
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