The campaign to divest Harvard University’s endowment from fossil fuels took a dramatic turn last week, as 93 faculty members joined students and alumni in the burgeoning Divest Harvard campaign with a powerful open letter.
“Our sense of urgency in signing this Letter cannot be overstated. Humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a melting of ice the world over, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, and an extreme, wildly fluctuating, and unstable global climate. These physical and chemical changes, some of which are expected to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents. And because of their effects on food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases, they pose unparalleled risks to human health and life…
Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means. The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests. If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.”
The Divest Harvard campaign has emerged as a flashpoint in the climate movement, pitting passionately committed student leaders against a reluctant administration, caught off guard by having to answer for the consequences of their investments in fossil fuels.
Harvard President Drew Faust flatly rebuffed the campaign last October in a statement that may go down as a landmark in the literature of shirking responsibility for climate disruption. It’s like a Field Guide to the Most Common Forms of Ethical Evasion: Our Actions Won’t Make Any Difference; Divestment is Hypocritical Because We All Use Fossil Fuels; We’re Reducing Our Carbon Footprint Instead of Pointing Fingers; Divestment Would be Inappropriately Political for an Academic Institution (but Investment is Just Business as Usual); Engagement is The Answer[i]. Faust plays all the greatest hits, and well.
This generous elucidation of the excuses for complicity in the climate crisis has proved to be something of a service to the movement. By leaning into these arguments with a twist of indignation and putting them on Harvard letterhead, Faust presented a well-lit target. She kicked up the ferocity of the growing ranks of students, alumni, and now faculty who are refusing to accept these excuses.
I have never met Drew Faust. By most accounts she is a wonderful person – a humanist and a brilliant historian whose work includes some of the most penetrating historical treatments of slavery. She is not the villain in this story. But she has for now accepted and reiterated the villain’s seductive and pervasive narrative, a story that keeps us locked in a cycle of denial, shame, and evasion of responsibility.
Now, the students have disrupted that cycle. They have drawn a bright, morally coherent line. Harvard must choose whether it will continue to profit from the climate crisis by feeding the most egregious perpetrators with the resource that makes them unstoppable: capital to build the infrastructure that will lock us in to catastrophic disruption.
As mind-boggling as the climate challenge is, as complicated as the answers are, and as good a human being and university president as Drew Faust may otherwise be, the choice before her is now clear. This time, the eminent historian finds herself squarely on the wrong side of history. Her credentials suggest that she might cross over. But until she and the Harvard Corporation do, the light that students, alumni, and faculty will shine on this decision will only burn brighter and hotter.
Many words will be spoken about this is before it’s over. But none will be truer than what Harvard student Benjamin Franta said about the prospective victims of preventable climate disasters — our kids and grandkids:
“They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did…”
[i] On this last evasion, ExxonMobil itself provided the most compelling possible rebuttal in its recent “carbon risk disclosure” statement. Bill McKibben paraphrases accurately here: “We plan on overheating the planet, we think we have the political muscle to keep doing it, and we dare you to stop it.” To further paraphrase: “Engage this!“