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On the day before Earth Day, Harvard announced a new “net-zero” by 2050 greenhouse gas emissions policy for its endowment. While it is about time Harvard acknowledges that the endowment is — as students, faculty, and alumni have been saying for years — an appropriate tool to achieve societal goals like climate action, the proposal was disappointing in its process, presentation, and policy.
From a process perspective, the Harvard Corporation chose to make this decision in a black box with little to no formal stakeholder engagement. By contrast, in 2008, when I was a graduate student at Harvard, I was appointed by former University President Drew G. Faust to a task force composed of leading faculty, staff, and students who were involved in a cross-university coalition pushing for climate action. This task force met weekly over a semester and issued a formal recommendation that was then accepted and acted upon by the administration. Yet this time — even after multiple student referenda, a faculty vote, and alumni petitions have enthusiastically endorsed divestment — instead of engaging these stakeholders in a thoughtful decision-making process, Harvard heard these calls for divestment, ignored them, and decided to do something completely different.
That process failure bled into Harvard’s failed presentation of this proposal. Despite the fact that students, faculty, and alumni have been calling on the University to divest from fossil fuels for eight years, Harvard’s announcement did not properly acknowledge the work done by its constituents to push Harvard to align its investments with its values. Harvard may have made this announcement near Earth Day expecting praise and celebration for its leadership, but it should not be surprised to find little of either from the students, faculty, and staff who have long been calling on Harvard to pick a side in this most timely of struggles for a livable planet.
Most egregiously, Harvard’s proposal fails as a matter of policy. By refusing to immediately and directly divest its holdings of fossil fuel stocks — a step taken by Brown University, the University of Oxford, and the University of California system, among others — Harvard ignores the question of responsibility for this crisis we find ourselves in. The primary culprit is the fossil fuel industry, which has been deliberately spreading misinformation, directly combatting the extensive research and scholarship that Harvard’s faculty have been working on for decades, and aggressively lobbying against climate policies that could have allowed for a gradual decarbonization. Rather than stand up for science and “Veritas,” Harvard is instead choosing to coddle the bullies and deniers. It is saying that all parties have equal roles to play in a problem that the fossil fuel companies created and continue to worsen.
Harvard couches its actions and hides behind the legitimacy of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The Paris Climate Agreement is a flawed treaty that recognizes that we “aspire” to keep global temperature rise this century to what scientists say is the highest safe level of warming (1.5 degrees Celsius), but whose total commitments pledged under Paris would see twice that — if countries actually honored their obligations. The IPCC, on the other hand, reported that if we want even a 50 percent chance of avoiding the catastrophic consequences of exceeding a temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius, global emissions must be cut in half by 2030 and ended by 2050.
There are several problems with Harvard’s proposed commitment to have our endowment achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050. First, in science we care about the “stock,” or total amount, of emissions in the atmosphere, not the “flow,” the amount we put up in a single year. So getting our 2050 targets right without similarly aligning the much more important — and more easily accountable — 2030 targets largely ignores the IPCC’s core recommendations. Second, if Harvard wants this to be seen as leadership, then the University must do more than what is being asked of every institution and nation in the world. Doing the bare minimum to get by is a C grade at best. Finally, Harvard cannot and should not content itself with science that only allows a 50 percent chance of avoiding the worst consequences of climate change. Harvard would not say it had done its job at an educational institution if students had a 50 percent chance of finding a job after graduation, so why would accepting a 50 percent chance at a livable planet count as moral leadership?
University President Lawrence S. Bacow took bold and decisive action in response to COVID-19, and helped save lives in the process by using Harvard’s bully pulpit to accelerate other institutions’ estimation of the threat. So it is all the more tragic that when faced with a crisis Harvard’s scientists have been warning about for half a century, President Bacow has not acted with similar courage or leadership. For the past eight years, students, faculty, and alumni have been calling on Harvard to stand on the side of scientists and marginalized communities and young people that will face the brunt of climate burdens, instead of the side of fossil fuel companies.
Instead, Harvard has once again passed up its mantle of leadership. This net-zero by 2050 policy tries to have it both ways, and fails on all counts. If the Corporation thinks the proposal will quiet calls for divestment, they are sorely mistaken. We will not go away until Harvard comes to terms with its responsibilities and revokes the social license its investments in fossil fuel companies continue to provide.
Craig S. Altemose is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School and the Law School. He is the executive director of Better Future Project.
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