This month, the University of Minnesota, Boston University and Harvard, our own institution, announced that they’ll divest from the fossil fuel industry.
These decisions are the latest wins for both the planet and for activism against the industry most responsible for the climate crisis. The three universities join over 1,300 schools and institutions — including foundations, pension funds, institutional investors and others — that have divested or announced plans to divest, at least in part, from fossil fuels. In doing so, they have affirmed that continued investment in fossil fuels is neither financially responsible nor morally defensible.
The corporations that make up the fossil fuel industry know that these divestment decisions are catalysts for further action against their increasingly dangerous and irresponsible business models. As such, they have used their financial resources and outsize influence to undermine grass-roots climate movements, having deployed consulting apparatuses to generate complex anti-divestment schemes run through obscure websites and corporate influence campaigns.
Though the greater community at Harvard, for example, had been in favor of divestment — a faculty resolution in February of 2020 proved overwhelming support for divestment, as did the alumni majority that has elected four pro-divestment candidates to Harvard’s Board of Overseers since last year — Harvard didn’t listen.
Years of organizing went into persuading Harvard’s governing body to contend with its role in fueling climate change and the destruction of its own students’ futures. That organizing included community rallies and demonstrations, a protest that led to arrests at the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game and a legal complaint challenging the school’s investments. Now the country’s oldest university, and one of the world’s richest, will allow its current investments in the fossil fuel industry to expire. It will divest an estimated $838 million of its $42 billion endowment from fossil fuels and take the first step toward a just transition to a greener future.
Despite these recent victories, the fossil fuel industry shows no sign of relenting in its campaign against divestment. Following Harvard’s announcement, the American Petroleum Institute stepped in to urge against divestment and to work with the industry on “tackling the climate challenge.” The Independent Petroleum Institute of America got to work making its own case against divestment. The industry seems unwilling — and perhaps unable — to change.
But the fact remains: Momentum is now against the fossil fuel disinformation and for divestment. Soon after Harvard’s announcement, the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis released a report that outlined how Harvard’s divestment can serve as a model for institutions globally.
Thirteen days after the Harvard announcement, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it would divest its $8 billion endowment. The next day, Boston University followed suit. The school had voted in 2016 to divest its holding of coal and tar sands; now it will divest from fossil fuels entirely, starting immediately. In making the announcement, Boston University President Robert A. Brown acknowledged the role of on-campus activism: “Advocates here have been very influential” in talking with the school’s trustees “and swaying their opinion.” One of those trustees, Richard Reidy, said “divestment is one vehicle to hasten fossil fuel extractors to transition to renewable energy.”
The University of Minnesota said in a statement that concerning its fossil-fuel-related investments, it “continues to work more closely to align its portfolios with mission-based objectives and priorities.”
Divestment isn’t a panacea for the climate crisis. But it is an important step in breaking the stranglehold that the fossil fuel industry has on politics, on economics and on the planet. The Harvard divestment decision reflects a broad recognition among students, faculty, alumni and other community members that the fossil fuel industry’s business model is incompatible with a just and stable future.
It is also incompatible with financial stability — a point Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, acknowledged in a letter to the university community. “Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe such investments are prudent,” he wrote. This, of course, was part of the argument that students and faculty had long been making.
Harvard’s divestment is a signal to other investors that as the planet burns, finance must not stand with the arsonists.
Some people will dismiss divestment as merely symbolic. Even if that were true, symbols matter. They signal our values and intentions. But divestment is more than that. Where investors put their money reflects their expectations of how the future will unfold, and those expectations, when acted upon, shape our future.
We are confident that Harvard’s example will inspire still more colleges and universities to invest in the future that their own students — and all young people — deserve.
Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, is the author of, most recently, “Science on a Mission: How Military Funding Shaped What We Do and Don’t Know about the Ocean.” Sofia Andrade, a sophomore at Harvard, is an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.
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