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In Support of Fossil Fuel Divestment

Harvard Management Company.
Harvard Management Company. By Karina G. Gonzalez-Espinoza
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Last month, students and other community members gathered in Tercentenary Theatre to ask Harvard to divest its holdings from fossil fuel companies. Cambridge Mayor Marc C. McGovern endorsed these activists, joining them in calling for divestment. The event served as the culmination of Heat Week — a series of intense on-campus events centered on climate change — which has brought concerns about Harvard’s investment in fossil fuels to a fever pitch. As conversation intensifies around this movement, this Board feels compelled to reconsider our long-standing stance on divestment.

For a long time, we have staunchly opposed divestment as a practice. We’ve argued it just isn’t practical: It won't really affect the market; it won't reverse climate change; it will hurt our endowment. In lieu of divestment, we have noted the necessity of scholarship to combat climate change and its effects. We have called on the University to use its investments to continue working with fossil fuel companies toward a more sustainable future. And we have envisioned a future where fossil fuels are simply a bad investment. And while we have not supported divestment as a practical measure, we have acknowledged its symbolism.

But in an era in which climate change is more rampant, more destructive, and more visible than ever — not to mention the attacks on its scientific reality — we realize that we can no longer view an endowment with investments in fossil fuels as an economically sensible future. Listening to our peers and reflecting on our values as a Board has led us to conclude that our past perspectives have become increasingly dated — not because they were misguided — but because symbols matter, and the endowment is a symbol of Harvard’s values.

Divest Harvard activists have called for the University to honor three requests: disclose, divest, and reinvest. We support these demands.

Disclosure is not unprecedented: Last month, after intense pressure, University President Lawrence S. Bacow disclosed that Harvard’s private investment in companies tied to the prison industry totalled $18,000. We commend Bacow for this act of transparency, as well as the work of protesters who pushed Bacow to disclose the figure. As we have often opined, administrative transparency is incredibly important. But transparency is necessarily an ongoing process. The next step toward a more responsible and ethical investment practice is for the University to fully disclose its fossil fuel investments.

We believe divestment is, first and foremost, a moral issue. Our University’s investment practices reflect its values. Harvard’s current argument that its endowment is apolitical belies its past investment choices. The University’s stance on fossil fuel divestment compromises its efforts to position itself as an academic institution at the forefront of the fight against climate change.

Harvard’s endowment was arguably political when the University decided to divest from the tobacco industry in the 1990s. It was similarly political when Harvard, regrettably, decided to only partially divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. We hope that Harvard does not make the same mistake on the front of climate change. Simply put, we should not allow our educations to be funded by the destruction of the environment and degradation of human life, particularly those who are already systematically disadvantaged.

But just because we see divestment as a moral and symbolic issue does not discount the practical effects such action has begun to have. Since our earliest discussions on the topic, the divest movement has gained speed and has been cited as a reason for fossil fuel company bankruptcy.

Over a year ago, Harvard published its plan to become fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. In so doing, the University has not only deemed the elimination of fossil fuels as something worth aspiring towards but also identified a realistic path to achieve that goal. In short, Harvard has done its research, and it has thrown its resources and symbolic leadership behind a fossil fuel-free future. But the University cannot absolve itself of the emissions enabled by its investments; these, too, constitute a real portion of its carbon footprint. Any effort to go fossil fuel-free must take this fact into account.

Fossil fuels pose an existential threat to humanity and our planet, one which particularly threatens communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. As such, we do not take supporting divestment lightly. It is a decision that merits deep reflection and which is appropriate only for the most extreme cases of widespread impact. The tactic of divestment should not be taken lightly or used in all or even most instances of a morally problematic industry. The standard for supporting divestment is incredibly high; given the dangers of climate change, we believe the fossil fuel industry meets that standard. We therefore call on Harvard to critically evaluate its current and future holdings and work to reinvest those which are incompatible with the aims of divestment.

Fundamentally, Harvard’s investments reflect its values, speak volumes about its moral character, and model the world it wishes to see and have a hand in building. Harvard students have the right and obligation to make their voices heard in this essential work. We have not led this charge. But we now join it. It’s time for the Harvard administration to do the same.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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