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On Tuesday, four members of the student activist group Divest Harvard were arrested while protesting in the lobby of Harvard Management Company’s downtown Boston headquarters. This marks their re-emergence after a semester-long lull as they claim to be shifting their attention from Harvard’s administration to the endowment managers.
We say this with deep respect for the gravity of the issue. Climate change is real and anthropogenic. It poses serious and severe risks for humans and the broader environment. The Pentagon believes it is a national security threat that risks increased war and poverty worldwide. These are issues that are sadly downplayed, whether as part of our campus conversation or the broader political and electoral narrative.
Yet even existential problems do not justify ineffectual solutions. Divestment is a profoundly hypocritical answer. All Harvard affiliates—from the administrators in Massachusetts Hall to the recently arraigned Divest protesters—look to fossil fuels every day as a helpful convenience. Our morning routines alone involve heated rooms, alarm clocks, hot showers, and lit hallways—all made possible by the combustion of long-dead dinosaurs.
Divestment activists, acknowledging this reality, reply that fossil fuels are inescapable but that our fundamental moral imperative is to do whatever we can. Proponents of divestment argue that going without a fossil fuel-consuming iPhone or a Goldilocks-temperatured shower is an impossibility in today’s world. Indeed, in their Facebook post encouraging others to support them in court, they urge well-wishers to take the subway. This ignores the role of individual agency.
None would doubt that walking is more onerous, lacking a smartphone is a burden, and cold showers are uncomfortable. Yet if they are willing to compromise here, just how imperative are these moral imperatives?
This point is not solely semantic. Though we find the moral argument for divestment uncompelling, the single reason divestment is ineffectual is that it does not alter the demand for oil. In the medium term, fossil fuel dependence appears to be inevitable. Broad structural factors like the emergence of the developing world make that so, but we should not forget that the choice to ride the subway or turn up the heat are part of the reason why each American has a 17 ton annual carbon footprint.
It is hard for us to see how Harvard’s investment choices—measured in the tens of millions—would shape a global fossil fuel market of nearly five trillion dollars. The supposed signal that Harvard might send also seems improbable. Not only is the message diluted when delivered by a fossil fuel-consuming messenger, but Harvard is hardly the only voice in the hyper-partisan climate policy debate. A recent poll reveals that just 27 percent of Americans blame humans for the majority of climate change, despite an overwhelming scientific consensus. Will Harvard Management Company really persuade those who have previously paid little heed to Nobel laureates, Presidents, the United Nations, and Harvard itself?
The impotence of divestment as a strategy should not, however, be a call to inaction. Harvard may lack relative financial firepower, but when it comes to research, our capabilities are unsurpassed. We must refocus on our comparative advantage: using our resources, including the proceeds from our endowment, to seek alternatives to fossil fuels.
The raison d’etre of Harvard is teaching and learning. As of last year, Harvard had spent $71 million to research solutions to climate change, and President Faust has traveled to Washington to ask for more. By devoting more resources to understanding the physical, economic, and political implications of global warming, Harvard faculty can help quantify environmental problems and engineer their solutions.
Research is the path to ensuring the future of oil is as short as possible, for no amount of activism will overcome a lack of scientific solutions. Yale’s announcement this week that it would reduce its fossil fuel investments for economic reasons is a sign that HMC could reach the same conclusion in the future.
As students, we are hardly investment experts. Though some activists argue that oil stocks are bad bets today, we doubt Divest Harvard would agree to buy them if they became better ones. If HMC tells us that the best endowment portfolio includes them, who are we to disagree?
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