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Three Years Later, Harvard Still Must Divest

By Benjamin A. Franta

Three years ago, a small group of student leaders—tired of seeing their and the world’s future sold out—created Divest Harvard. Its goal was (and remains) simple: make the case that the time has come for Harvard to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry, and, in doing so, educate the campus and the public about climate change, grow a grassroots movement to face down institutional complacency, and, ultimately, produce a paradigm shift in the popular psychology and politics of climate change globally.

When Divest Harvard began, few had heard of divestment, and the idea of fossil fuel divestment was largely untested. In three years, much has changed. The movement has gone global. So far some 400 institutions have committed to divest from some or all fossil fuels, according to Thousands more campaigns are active.

Over the summer, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the California Academy of Sciences, and the Canadian Medical Association committed to divestment, and an internal committee at MIT recommended to divest from coal and tar sands. Many other universities have already moved forward on divestment, including the University of Oxford, Georgetown University, and Stanford University. Last week, the California legislature voted to divest its public pension funds from coal. And the movement has been endorsed by the UN’s climate change chief Christiana Figueres, Special Envoy for Climate Change Mary Robinson, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and the World Bank’s president Jim Yong Kim, among others. Despite these developments, however, Harvard has not yet made a forward move on divestment.

Who decides what Harvard does about its investments in fossil fuels? The answer is the Harvard Corporation, including Harvard’s president, Drew Faust. Over the past three years, they have come up with an ever-changing list of reasons why Harvard can’t divest. Those reasons have become less and less compelling as institutions globally—both bigger and smaller than Harvard—move forward on divestment.

The rationale for divestment is pretty straightforward. Today, we can see the effects of the last generation’s short-sighted development of fossil fuels, ranging from the intensity of the current drought in California, to extreme flooding in places like the Philippines, to recent droughts in the Middle East that have triggered violent conflict and the exodus of refugees. These examples serve to illustrate that although human-caused climate change is new, the face of it is not: to individuals, climate change is poverty, desperation, organized killing, the death of family members, and so on.

I myself have talked to parents in the Philippines who have had to collect their children’s decomposing bodies after an extreme flood. I’ve also seen the children who survive such events—homeless and stuck in poverty. These are the burdens we place on the next generation by promoting fossil fuel development. Is this what we at Harvard should be promoting? And is this what Harvard should be profiting from? We owe it to those parents and those children to ask ourselves these questions.

So far, the Harvard Corporation’s granddaddy excuse for not divesting—the one that can’t be proved or disproved—is that Harvard’s divestment would not ultimately matter in the fight against climate change, so we might as well keep making money from fossil fuels. In making this excuse, the Harvard Corporation—keen to promote Harvard as a trendsetter and a force for global good in almost every other situation—seems to lack a basic grasp of what leadership and responsibility mean. It’s an excuse that should make us at Harvard feel embarrassed—and perhaps a little ashamed—because we know that the example Harvard sets does, in fact, matter. And the rest of the world does, too.

Today, we understand the dangerous effects of fossil fuel development. Yet institutional norms still say that to invest in and profit from such development—while making others deal with the consequences—is a completely acceptable behavior. That norm has to change, and this is precisely how Harvard can make a difference with divestment.

As it stands, Harvard’s lack of forward movement on its fossil fuel investment policy is being used as an excuse by other universities not to act. Even the Independent Petroleum Association of America has the Harvard Corporation’s words displayed on one of its websites, urging institutions not to divest.

When the push for divestment at Harvard began three years ago, the Harvard Corporation hoped it would go away. It hasn’t. It’s become a global force. And the Harvard Corporation’s insistence on investing in fossil fuels gives our Harvard community neither the moral high ground nor the intellectual high ground. We can do better.

This year, join Divest Harvard as we push the administration to show the leadership it’s capable of and stop investing in fossil fuels. We have an opportunity—and a duty—to make a big difference on the issue of our time, and we don’t have time to waste.

Benjamin Franta is a PhD Candidate in Applied Physics at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, a former research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and an organizer of Divest Harvard, a fossil fuel divestment campaign.

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