Very, Very, Veritas: Harvard faculty call for divestment

April 14, 2014

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.Harvard Divest 2

“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…”

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[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!


War on truth: Which side is Harvard on?

November 9, 2013

College students across the country are calling on their schools’ endowments to divest from fossil fuels.  The campaign is taking off.Harvard Divest

But Harvard University President Drew Faust has rejected the idea, without responding to student requests for a public forum on the issue.  In doing so, she turned her back on the institution’s mission:  truth.

The fossil fuel industry, supported in some part by the Harvard endowment, has stooped to a particular form of political manipulation that poses a direct, existential threat to the purposes of academia.  They fund and disseminate climate disinformation and corrupt our democracy in order to undermine political will for solutions.  They have, with an alarming degree of success, prevented our institutions from acting on the basis of what our brains know about the dire, objective reality of our circumstances on the planet.  They are at war with the truth.

By investing its assets in fossil fuels, Harvard is feeding a conscious and cynical strategy to separate human agency from knowledge and reason.  The direct target of this strategy is the essential good that Harvard exists to serve:   the unique human capacity for rational action based on intellectual discovery.

President Faust argues that divestment would have no practical effect.  Harvard’s share of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies is too small to matter, she calculates.

This analysis sells Harvard short.  Calibrating the potential impact of divestment based on Harvard’s share of the capitalization of coal and oil companies is a bit like judging Rosa Parks’ contribution to civil rights based on the physical proportion of the segregated facilities in the South that she occupied when she sat in the front of the bus.  At stake here is truth – the institution’s purpose – and our capacity to act upon it.  If Harvard won’t stand up for that, who will?  And if Harvard did stand up for that, how big a blow would that strike for truth?

Faust worries that divestment would be inappropriately political.  But investing in fossil fuels is every bit as political as choosing not to.  By shunning divestment, Harvard is not just missing an opportunity to shed light; it is financing darkness.

The illumination that Harvard could offer now by divesting would be clear and penetrating.  The controversy surrounding the issue adds the wattage needed to make a dent in the prevailing darkness.  If Harvard divests from fossil fuels, its more conventional academic contributions to climate solutions will gain a sense of integrity and hope that would surely increase their effectiveness.

What the world needs from academia right now is no more or less than what’s emblazoned on Harvard’s crimson shield, the institution’s motto and purpose:  “Veritas” – truth – and the courage to take a stand for it.

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Above, I focus on a specific reason why academic institutions in particular should divest from fossil fuels – because such investments directly undermine truth, their mission.

But President Faust’s statement rejecting divestment reads like a compendium of popular misconceptions and evasions about divestment in particular and climate action in general.  Faust has offered sort of a non-deniers’ manifesto for shirking climate responsibility, so a thorough response would be something of a handbook for the opposite… if I get time.

In the meantime, and in case I never get to it, Jeff Spross has an economical debunker: Harvard’s Four Reasons For Not Divesting From Fossil Fuels, And Why They’re All Wrong.

Joe Romm follows up with a specific response to one of Faust’s most insidious arguments – the idea that divestment is hypocritical because we consume fossil fuels.  This particular mode of tail-chasing is a maddeningly potent deterrent to climate action.  I hope to focus on it soon.  Says Joe:  The Dangerous Bargain Harvard’s Dr. Faust Has Made With Fossil Fuels

For a wonderfully thorough fiduciary case for divestment, from former Reagan SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth, see:  “The Financial Case for Divestment of Fossil Fuel Companies by Endowment Fiduciaries”

And whatever else you do, don’t just sit there, DIVEST:  “Extracting Fossil Fuels from your Portfolio: A Guide to Personal Divestment and Reinvestment.”