Get Harvard out of oil and gas

Speech at Divest Harvard/ Alumni for Fossil Fuel Divestment demonstration
Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts
September 16, 2013

In the past year, since this campaign was launched, we’ve heard from a few critics — and, frankly, from a few cynics…And one of the things we’re told is that fossil-fuel divestment will be ineffective as a strategy to address climate change — that the economics of it won’t alter the behavior of these companies, the wealthiest on Earth. But this misreads — or fails to read — our clearly stated reasons for divestment. The leverage we aim to bring is not simply economic. It’s moral.

And on that score, we’re also told that we have the wrong target — that the fossil fuel industry isn’t the enemy, that we ourselves, as consumers — who, yes, in spite of our best efforts, still depend on fossil fuels — we are the enemy. As though the fossil fuel companies are somehow blameless — despite everything we know to the contrary. And as though the working, poor, and struggling families of this country and every other country are somehow responsible for solving the climate crisis, which they did nothing to create, by themselves — even as they’re forced to rely on fossil fuels, through no fault of their own, simply to put food on the table.

This is a basic issue of justice. The wealthiest corporations on Earth have the power to help solve the crisis they have done so much to create, and from which they have profited — and continue to profit — so richly. And they must use it. Not stand in the way of solutions. Not, for God’s sake, deceive the public, deny science, and obstruct solutions.

So we’re told these things, but at the end of the day, what we’re mainly told is that divestment is…well, you see, children, it’s complicated. It’s difficult — for various technical reasons…

In fact, what this really means is that Harvard just can’t be bothered. “Climate change, yes, it’s very serious,” we’re told. “Indeed, Harvard’s faculty is contributing much to our understanding of climate change and its solutions. But you see, children, it doesn’t rise to such a level that we would take any such radical or extreme course of action as divestment.”

Only in the rarest of circumstances, we’re told — indeed, only in “extraordinarily rare circumstances,” in the words of the administration — will the university go so far as to divest…

So let’s consider this language, this boilerplate, emanating from Massachusetts Hall. Only in “extraordinarily rare circumstances” will the university divest.

Presumably such circumstances would include — oh, I don’t know — humans melting the Arctic.

Presumably such circumstances would include humans rapidly acidifying the oceans — and raising them.

Presumably such circumstances would include burning the planet’s great forests. Drying up its great rivers. Flooding its great cities.

Presumably such “extraordinarily rare circumstances” would also include the fact, famously reported by Bill McKibben, class of 1982, that the fossil fuel industry controls in its reserves more than five times the amount of carbon that climate science tells us can be burned, over the next four decades, if we’re to have a chance of preserving a livable climate this century — and the fact that the industry shows every intention of extracting and burning every ounce of it, unless and until somebody stops them, or makes it unprofitable for them to do so.

In other words, it is perhaps among the rarest and most extraordinary of circumstances that the power of a single industry holds the fate of the planet and of humanity in its grip.

Presumably these circumstances are rare and extraordinary…

So, yes, divestment may be bothersome. It may be — inconvenient. Well, I hate to tell you, but nobody ever said that taking on this crisis would be convenient. Or that business as usual — or academics as usual — would be enough. Nobody ever said it would be easy…

We’re here today, graduates of this proud university, to demand that Harvard divest from fossil fuels, not because it’s easy — though it is. And not because it’s profitable — though it will be. But because it’s right. And because it’s necessary…

Fortunately, as we all know — as they all know in that building behind me — the cost will be nothing of the sort. Not even close. In fact, quite the opposite. Divestment may be inconvenient, but it will do no damage to this great institution. It will only make Harvard stronger.

It will reassure the world of Harvard’s leadership.

It will ensure the faith of its alumni in its integrity.

And it will demonstrate to its students and to future generations that it understands the meaning of “action from principle,” of moral courage — of conscience.



Why Harvard won’t divest from oil and gas

“Fossil Fuel Divestment Statement”
Cambridge, Massachusetts
October 3, 2013

Dear Members of the Harvard Community:

Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges. I very much respect the concern and commitment shown by the many members of our community who are working to confront this problem…While I share their belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise…

Because I am deeply concerned about climate change, I… feel compelled to ask whether a focus on divestment does not in fact distract us from more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities. Universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies. If we and others were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers. Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies. And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry. Divestment pits concerned citizens and institutions against companies that have enormous capacity and responsibility to promote progress toward a more sustainable future.

I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day. 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.

I believe there are a number of more effective ways for Harvard both to address climate change and to enhance our commitment to sustainable investment.

Our teaching and research on environmental and climate issues is significant and growing, and it is a priority in The Harvard Campaign.

We offer some 250 courses in the broad domain encompassing environmental studies and energy. We support some 225 faculty who work in the area, as well as a graduate consortium that involves more than 100 students and seven Schools.

We have a thriving University Center for the Environment. Outstanding faculty in chemistry, biology, earth and planetary sciences, engineering, and beyond are making profoundly important contributions to envisioning the future of energy and shaping the relevant science and technology. The Kennedy School’s Belfer Center has won international acclaim for its influential work on climate change economics and policy. Harvard scholars in design are on the frontier of thinking about sustainable cities; scholars in law, business, economics, and public policy are leaders in addressing regulatory, commercial, and economic aspects of energy and the environment; scholars in public health do vital research on environmental health and its relation to energy use. Indeed, the foundation of our current national clean air regulations was a study undertaken more than two decades ago by faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health.

We also have a strong institutional commitment to sustainability in how we live and work. Our Office for Sustainability is doing outstanding work. We are making substantial progress in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. We have become much more conscious of sustainable design principles in all of our physical planning and construction.  We have created awards to recognize “heroes” who are helping to make Harvard green. And Harvard has earned an array of honors to recognize various sustainability efforts. I am very proud of all that our students and faculty and staff are doing on this front, and those efforts will continue and grow.

As a long-term investor, we need to strengthen and further develop our approach to sustainable investment. This is no small undertaking, and it will present challenges along the way. Especially given our long-term investment horizon, we are naturally concerned about environmental, social, and governance factors that may affect the performance of our investments now and in the future. Such risks are complex, often global in nature, and addressing them effectively often entails collaborative approaches. Generally, as shareholders, I believe we should favor engagement over withdrawal. In the case of fossil fuel companies, we should think about how we might use our voice not to ostracize such companies but to encourage them to be a positive force both in meeting society’s long-term energy needs while addressing pressing environmental imperatives. And, like other investors, we should consider how to obtain further, better information on how companies not only in the energy industry but across all sectors take account of sustainability risks and opportunities as part of their business strategies and practices.

Photo: Shutterstock by P.V.R.Murty

Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson is a contributing writer for The Nation.
Drew Faust
Drew Faust is the President of Harvard University.

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