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Georgetown’s Decision to Divest from Fossil Fuels Has Uncertain Implications for Harvard, Experts Say

Members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard recently protested Harvard's investments in the fossil fuel industry with an occupation of University Hall.
Members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard recently protested Harvard's investments in the fossil fuel industry with an occupation of University Hall. By Aiyana G. White
By Ellen M. Burstein and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

Though Georgetown University’s administration pledged on Feb. 6 to divest from the fossil fuel industry, legal and environmental experts say the decision provides little insight into the decision-making of Harvard’s top administrators as they maintain their stance against divestment.

Columbia Law School Professor Michael B. Gerrard said he is unsure whether or not Georgetown’s efforts will have an impact on Harvard’s divestment movement.

“I think the Georgetown divestment made a wave,” Gerrard said. “Does it amount to a tide? I’m not sure.”

Georgetown announced its decision to divest both public securities and private investments from the fossil fuel industry in a press release earlier this month.

“The Board of Directors has directed the University to implement a policy to continue to seek investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and related areas that promote a transition to a more sustainable world; to cease new investments in fossil fuel companies; and to divest from fossil fuel investments over the next decade—including divestment from public securities within five years and private investments within ten years,” the press release reads.

No Ivy League university has elected to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Still, Gerrard said he believes that, if one of the eight schools were to divest, others would do the same.

“If one does, it makes it easier for others to follow suit,” Gerrard said.

Georgetown Climate Center executive director Victoria A. Arroyo said she believes universities will have to shift investments away from the fossil fuel industry, but was uncertain how it would specifically play out at Harvard.

“What’s happening at Harvard is just a question of how they make this shift and when,” Arroyo said.

Doug Koplow, who runs the environmentalist organization Earth Track, also said divesting Harvard’s endowment from the fossil fuel industry would take an uncertain amount of time and that implementation details are important.

“I think moving a big ship does take a while,” he said. “It is always important to pay attention to the series of steps that are being planned.”

Experts said Georgetown’s move raised broader questions about how and why universities decide to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

In response to Georgetown’s pledge, University of Virginia School of Law Professor Cale Jaffe said an institution’s economic interests are often pitted against environmental concerns in debates over divestment. Such contrasts, however, are a false dichotomy, according to Jaffe.

“We’re used to seeing the economy pitted against the environment, as if we have to choose one or the other,” Jaffe said. “What the Georgetown statement seems to support is the emerging conventional wisdom that, no, in fact, the best choice from an environmental standpoint will also be the best long-term choice from an economic standpoint.”

Georgetown President John J. DeGioia wrote in a Feb. 6 announcement that Pope Francis’s 2015 missive on the environment would “inform” and “strengthen” the school’s attempts to mitigate climate change. Georgetown University is affiliated with the Jesuit religious order of the Roman Catholic Church.

“Our pursuit of building a more sustainable future is guided by our identity as a Catholic and Jesuit institution, and through the inspiration of Pope Francis, who has articulated an ambitious vision for all of us in his 2015 encyclical,” DeGioia wrote. “His words inform and strengthen our commitment to the environment, and to one another, ensuring that as we move forward, we do so in a spirit of mutual respect and collaboration.”

Divestment has become hot-button issue on Harvard’s campus. Over the past year, ramped-up student activism organized by campus group Divest Harvard prompted the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Medical School faculty to vote in favor of divestment.

Divest Harvard has put forward Earth Day 2020 — April 22 — as a deadline for the University to divest from fossil fuels.

Georgetown’s decision to divest comes four months after the University of California system announced it would divest its $13.4 billion endowment and $70 billion pension fund from fossil fuels.

UC Chief Investment Officer Jagdeep Singh Bachher and the UC Board of Regents’ Investments Committee Chairman Richard Sherman wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in late September that the university system planned to divest from fossil fuels not only to combat climate change, but also because of the industry’s perceived risk.

“We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk,” the op-ed reads. “That’s why we will have made our $13.4-billion endowment ‘fossil free’ as of the end of this month, and why our $70-billion pension will soon be that way as well.”

Harvard spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain referred to earlier statements made by University President Lawrence S. Bacow regarding divestment.

Bacow said in a December interview that he agreed with activists about the necessity of climate action, but disagreed that fossil fuel divestment was the most effective method to effect change.

“I share their belief that action is required,” Bacow said. “We just happen to have an honest difference of opinion over what the appropriate action is.”

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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