Harvard: Divest for our Future

Illustration, Sasha Johnson-Freyd

By the Perspective Staff

In just a few decades, climate change could force a Dust Bowl to spread into the Midwest. In other words, our most productive farmland could turn into a desert as early as 2050. Climate change is not an abstract threat, but rather something that we will have to confront directly within our lifetimes.

People have spent twenty years trying to stop the climate crisis through many different channels. Concerned citizens have built gardens, put up solar panels, and weatherized their homes; but fossil fuel energy sources are too entrenched in our infrastructure for this behavioral DIY-approach to have had a significant effect. A few politicians have made bold statements about fighting global warming, but most have voted against even the weakest carbon-curbing legislative efforts, choosing to protect the profits of their donors rather than listen to the advice of military experts, public health professionals, scientists, and economists.

In the face of these failed attempts, some factions of the climate movement have begun taking nonviolent direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure. Peaceful protesters in East Texas, for example, recently managed to partially delay construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, but their battle is far from won. Furthermore, companies plan to build many additional pipelines, coal plants, and other types of infrastructure that will lock us into irreversible global warming if completed. Direct action will not be able to solve the climate crisis by itself.

While behavioral and political efforts have not yet succeeded and direct action, though courageous, is not a long-term solution, the student wing of climate movement has a new idea. Campaigns are springing up on campuses across the nation asking universities to divest from fossil fuel corporations. University endowments are worth over $400 billion nationally, so coordinated divestment would directly damage fossil fuel corporations, hindering their ability to both emit greenhouse gases and corrupt our government through campaign contributions. By removing their money from oil, gas, and coal corporations, universities will send a powerful signal that it is time to power civilization with safe and sustainable energy sources.

Here at Harvard, our campus’s chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future (SJSF), supported by Better Future Project and 350.org, recently kicked off a campaign calling on Harvard to divest its $30.7 billion endowment from companies involved with the extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas. There are many good financial, educational, and social reasons for the Harvard Corporation to act upon SJSF’s recommendation.

First, from a utilitarian perspective, it is in Harvard’s long-term economic interest to divest from fossil fuels. Current fossil fuel share prices reflect the potential profit from the 2795 gigatons of carbon that those corporations own in their reserves and are planning to burn. However, humans can only burn 565 more gigatons of carbon before we raise the earth’s temperature by 2 degrees Celsius, a limit known as the tipping point. Beyond 2 degrees of warming, the Earth’s feedback loops kick in and the planet begins warming itself, absorbing more heat as reflective ice sheets disappear and even releasing greenhouse gases as the tundra melts. These 2 degrees or 565 gigatons represent a point of no return: we will be trapped on a planet with a radically altered climate and an extremely destabilized society. Since this is an impossible future, the projected long-term profits of fossil fuel companies are just an illusion. At some point the façade will fall away, the nation will accept that those gigatons need to remain locked underground, and Exxon’s share prices will tank. In 2008, Harvard lost $10 billion when our money managers did not foresee the bursting of the housing bubble. The university should not repeat its mistake and put our endowment at risk from the coming collapse of the carbon bubble.

Second, the investments of any educational institution should never serve to destroy the future of its students or the survival of the institution itself. Our expensive degrees won’t be able to prevent increasingly powerful hurricanes from destroying our homes and workplaces. The resources invested in Allston and House renewal will be worthless if floods overtake HBS and the southern part of Harvard Square in just a few decades, as is expected to happen if carbon emissions continue at their current pace. Continued investment in the fossil fuel industry threatens not only Harvard’s economic prospects, but also its physical security and the security of its students.

Finally, divestment is the ethical course of action. Harvard has a history of divesting from companies involved in serious public health or human rights abuses. The university divested from tobacco out of concern for public health, noting the 400,000 people killed by tobacco use every year. Harvard also partially divested from companies complicit with apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Darfur in the interest of human rights. Today, fossil fuels kill 5 million people annually, and this figure is only expected to rise. Some of these deaths are due to air pollution, while others are caused by the fact that climate change has increased the incidence of hunger, disease, and natural disasters. If global warming goes unchecked, the Earth will have a carrying capacity of 1 billion people by the end of the century, meaning that 6 out of every 7 people on Earth will die, not taking population growth into account. Global warming, like the other issues which once prompted Harvard to divest, is an exceptionally serious human rights and public health threat. Ethics have affected Harvard’s investment decisions in the past, and they should continue to matter.

Divestment from fossil fuels is a practical and moral imperative for every university community, and other schools have already begun to act upon this realization. Hampshire College recently revealed that it holds no investments in fossil fuel companies while Amherst College is considering public divestment from coal, looking to act in conjunction with other peer institutions.

It is now time for Harvard to step forward, for with great wealth and power comes great responsibility. President Faust and the Harvard Corporation must ensure that our university does not support the companies that threaten to destroy our futures by perpetuating and exacerbating the climate crisis. It is time for Harvard to divest from fossil fuels.

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