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Harvard’s Decision to Divest from Fossil Fuels Teaches the Value of Persistence

By William E. McKibben, Contributing Opinion Writer
William E. McKibben ’82, a former Crimson president, is an environmentalist and founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org.

When writer Naomi Klein and I helped launch the fossil fuel divestment movement in 2012, it was largely modeled on the anti-apartheid movement that I’d seen and reported on at Harvard in my undergraduate days. We thought that fossil fuel companies represented a not entirely dissimilar rogue capitalism, willing to break the planet in the name of their business model. By the end of that year, there were hundreds of divestment campaigns underway at American colleges, including, of course, one at Harvard.

And Harvard’s then-University President Drew G. Faust was among the first leaders in higher education to respond, with a 2013 letter explaining why the University would never divest. It was a farrago of defensive nonsense: Among other things, she argued that, “given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.” Her argument, in short, was that Harvard couldn’t divest from fossil fuels until fossil fuels were no longer important — which makes, if you think about it, no sense at all.

One isn’t surprised that the fossil fuel industry loved Harvard’s stand, but I confess it saddened me enormously that The Crimson Editorial Board in those days loved it too, scolding those who stood up to the fossil fuel industry. Happily, students paid no attention and continued their fight over an entire decade — not an easy feat, since University administrators count on the fact that undergraduate passions will last, at maximum, four years. I think of activists like Chloe Maxmin, who helped lead the fight in her undergraduate days and has had enough time afterward to become a force in the Maine state legislature (which, by the way, divested the state’s pension fund before Harvard got around to it).

This same story was playing out across the world, with thousands and thousands of campaigns and campaigners. We won at the University of California, at Oxford, at Cambridge; we won in the New York City and State pension funds, each of them five times the size of Harvard’s endowment. The Rockefellers divested. The country of Ireland divested. And as all this happened, a few things grew ever clearer.

One, despite what Faust had claimed, there was no financial penalty for divesting. Indeed, institutions that divested early made out like bandits since the fossil fuel sector dramatically underperformed the rest of the economy for the last 10 years. Had Harvard divested when students first asked, the absurd endowment would be even more absurd.

Second, despite what The Crimson had confidently insisted, divestment pinched the industry hard, both reputationally and in its access to capital. Former Crimson president Jim J. Cramer ’77 devoted his airtime on CNBC a year ago to explaining why you shouldn’t buy oil shares — in short, because “we’re starting to see divestment all over the world.” Shell Oil, in a recent annual report, called divestment a material risk to its business, which is a good thing since Shell’s business is a material risk to planet earth.

Eventually, all of this overwhelmed Harvard. The wonderful organizers at Divest Harvard never gave up. Alumni led by former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth ’61 barraged Massachusetts Hall. The clever strategists at Harvard Forward launched an assault on the Overseers. Faculty joined in the fight. There were even legal challenges under ancient provisions of the College charter. And, of course, The Crimson came around, finding itself on the right side of history.

As in most such cases, the powers that be eventually decided that the pain of divesting (which runs the risk of offending rich and conservative alums) was outweighed by the pain of staying the course. After all, Harvard has to market itself to a world of high school students for whom climate change has become the defining issue of the age. Eventually, President Bacow blinked.

But it was all about the persistence. Had the effort ever lapsed in the face of official scorn, Harvard would still be in league with Exxon, trying to make a little more money off the collapse of the planet. I remember most vividly Harvard Heat Week, in April of 2015. Some of those memories are uncomfortable — sleeping one night in the shrubbery outside Massachusetts Hall, and the next in the occupied alumni office. But I remember most of all my beloved colleague, Koreti Tiumalu, who I’d brought from her native South Pacific to Cambridge for the event. She explained, over and over, that the wealth of Harvardians rested on the drowning of her homeland. Koreti has since died, but when you’re part of a movement you have a kind of afterlife, and she — not the seemingly invincible masters of the planet that reign in the Yard — carried the day.

William E. McKibben ’82, a former Crimson president, is an environmentalist and founder of the international climate campaign group 350.org.

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