Not So Hot on Heat Week

Divest Harvard has organizational acumen but no viable strategy for progress

Divest Harvard’s Heat Week is an impressive feat of organization: a petition with some celebrities sprinkled in, students committed enough to risk arrest, even the sheer scale of a protest covering three buildings over seven days. This Divest—which vacuums its protest spaces and asks Massachusetts Hall freshmen for permission before protesting—is a far cry from the group that ambushed President Faust with a camera before distorting her words. Protest is good, and as we have opined before, so is action on the crucial issue of climate change. But the magnitude of the protest must correspond both with the severity of the problem and the effectiveness of the solution. It is here that we find Divest Harvard lacking. Unfortunately, as much as ever, divestment works toward the noble end of combating climate change through unproductive, unlikely, and ineffectual means.

Divest has articulated no link between divestment and emissions reduction. It has suggested that divestment by a university as prominent as Harvard might have an impact, but upon whom is highly unclear. Previous divestments by similarly prominent universities have failed to move the needle. So too has a worldwide consensus of 97 percent of qualified climate scientists, the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and sustained international and domestic advocacy by, among others, President Obama. What attention will Harvard focus on this issue that the entire scientific community, round-the-clock CNN coverage of burning oil rigs, and several State of the Union addresses were unable to bring? Harvard may be special, but it is not that special.

Even Divest Harvard acknowledges the lack of a viable alternative to fossil fuels, but argues that this is due to the oil industry’s chilling effect on research. If so, let us make Harvard a bastion for research and education so that the breakthrough alternative fuel is found here in Cambridge.

Harvard can contribute by leveraging its strengths: not a national soapbox, but world-class research abilities. As President Faust has stated, Harvard does critical research on climate science and policy, including $71 million in spending since 2009 on climate research (ironically, approximately the size of Harvard’s holdings in fossil fuel companies). Harvard’s research-oriented work has involved low-carbon urban planning, studies of climate accords, and electric vehicle technology. As a university, we have reduced our emissions footprint by 29 percent per capita in the past several years. Harvard furthermore works toward progress in climate change by engaging with fossil fuel companies and advocating for better sustainability there—which could not be done if we were to divest. As a stakeholder and research institution, Harvard is best poised to make progress on climate change through education, engagement in the political process (an option certainly not available to the University or its students when Harvard partially divested from the South African apartheid regime), and open conversation.

And Harvard has definitely been willing to have that conversation, even with regards to divestment. Divest may claim that President Faust is unwilling to engage them in meaningful dialogue, but the administration's numerous overtures to the contrary tell a different story. For example, Faust participated in an open forum in March, but while Divest Harvard members leafletted outside, they did not take the opporunity to engage her. 


Fundamentally, the advocacy of Divest Harvard, impassioned and moving as it may be, is stopped cold in its tracks by the unfortunate brute force of economic logic. The oil industry reported nearly $100 billion in profit last year, and Big Oil has no plans to simply pack up and leave if universities divest. After all, another investor will surely buy any shares Harvard might sell. Especially given our dependence on fossil fuels and the corresponding hypocrisy of rejecting fossil fuel companies on moral grounds (by contrast, when students advocated tobacco divestment, they did not exactly smoke cigarettes at their rallies), divestment simply is not the best path forward. A carbon-free economy cannot involve fossil fuels. At its core, Divest Harvard has no strategy to make that a reality.