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Fossil-Fuel Divestment Petition Garners More than 150 Signatures

Mass Hall, Fall 2017
Massachusetts Hall

An online petition calling on Harvard to divest its holdings in the fossil fuel industry had garnered 150 signatures as of Tuesday evening.

The petition, which was formed last week and circulated around House lists, includes a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow from the Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice that asks him to “bring a new voice and vision to Harvard’s role in climate reform.”

The letter calls on Bacow to see Harvard not only as an “institution of higher education but also a financial institution with considerable social influence.”

“The University’s continued investment in unsustainable industries undermines our shared vision of Harvard as a forward-looking and ethically responsible institution,” the letter reads.

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The petition also specifically urges the Harvard Corporation — the University’s highest governing body — and the Harvard Management Company to “take serious climate action.” The group wrote that they are “ready” to meet with both bodies and Bacow to devise “pathways for divestment.”

Ilana A. Cohen ’22, the secretary of Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice, said students are “eager” to see the University take action on this issue.

“We are putting ourselves to be at the table, and we need them to meet us there in order to make real progress on taking this serious climate action,” Cohen said.

The petition comes after the November Undergraduate Council elections, in which 71.5 percent of student voters supported a referendum that called on Harvard to divest from the “fossil fuel industry.” That figure is virtually unchanged from 2012, the last time students voted on the issue. In that election, 72 percent of students voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment.

In response to the petition Tuesday, University spokesperson Melodie Jackson reiterated Harvard’s years-long stance on fossil fuel divestment in an emailed statement. Jackson said that though the University recognizes the threat of climate change, Harvard will not pursue divestment as a means to combat environment challenges.

“While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it,” Jackson wrote.

Jackson pointed to the University’s “Climate Action Plan,” which was released in February and includes a plan to make Harvard fossil fuel-free by 2050. Former University President Drew G. Faust announced the goal to Harvard affiliates in an email, writing that “ambitious climate goals” set by the University come in response to the threat climate change poses to humanity and the planet.

Jackson wrote that the Corporation will continue to “actively incorporate” factors of environmental, social, and governance significance in its investment work.

“Universities like Harvard have a crucial role to play in tackling climate change and Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions,” Jackson wrote.

The issue of divestment has a long history on Harvard’s campus. Throughout her tenure, Faust did not support divestment from the fossil-fuel industry, and faced critism from students. In 2013, she explicitly rejected divestment, writing in a press release that the action was not “warranted or wise.” Environmental activist group Divest Harvard blockaded Massachusetts Hall for six days in April 2015 to pressure administrators on the issue.

In recent months, Harvard-affiliated activists have called the University to divest from not only the fossil-fuel industry, but also the prison industry.

Asked in an October interview whether Harvard would consider divesting from prisons, Bacow said altering the endowment is not an appropriate mechanism to “achieve political ends or particular policy ends.”

“There are other ways that the University tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don't think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that,” Bacow said.

The petition also wrote that, during a meeting with members of Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice as part of his regularly scheduled office hours, Bacow “casually dismissed divestment.”

Jackson wrote that the University will “continue to support” its faculty, students, and staff as they pursue research on renewable sources of energy and the effects of climate change.

Cohen said Harvard can use its “incredible amount of moral influence” and “really unique economic influence” to make a significant impact if it commits to divestment from the fossil-fuel industry.

“We have an unusual capacity to display leadership for our peer institutions and the resistance of the Harvard administration in displaying that leadership,” Cohen said.

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at alexandra.chaidez@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

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