Activism Works! Harvard Will Divest From All Fossil Fuels

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In an open letter to the Harvard community, President Lawrence Bacow announced that the Harvard Management Company (HMC) is in the process of removing the university from all fossil fuel investments. While not incorporating the word “divestment,” Bacow outlined a multi-pronged approach to the updated financial strategy.

  • With no current direct investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels, HMC does not intend to make such investments in the future.
  • Legacy investments constitute less than 2% of the endowment, continue to decline, and will not receive any future commitments. Bacow referred to these limited partnerships as legacy investments that “are in runoff mode and will end as these partnerships are liquidated.”
  • HMC is building a portfolio of investments in funds that support the transition to a green economy, including those alongside MIT in The Engine, a fund that, among other things, seeks to accelerate the development of technologies that promise to address the challenges posed by climate change.

The Harvard Crimson editorial board praised the announcement, saying, “We believe that divesting from fossil fuels has an important symbolic value.” Nodding to the decision as “a testament to the power of student activism,” the editorial board also deconstructed the phrasing of Bacow’s announcement, acknowledging that “the endowment, as a symbol of our institutional values, is hence inherently political; Harvard’s decision to free itself from fossil fuel investments shows our commitment to reducing the extent and impact of climate change. Embracing this symbolic importance of fossil fuel divestment means, to us, actually using the word ‘divest.'”

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Through the announcement, Bacow drew upon the theme of “reducing its exposure to fossil fuels.” With the need to reconcile long-term investment decisions that support the university’s teaching and research mission, the president described both the need to decarbonize the economy and HMC’s responsibility as fiduciaries. Bacow celebrated the fact the HMC was the first endowment in the country to commit to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the entire investment portfolio by 2050. He said HMC was committed to working alongside other endowments to achieve greater transparency in the greenhouse gas footprint through development of protocols for assessing and reducing the footprint for entire investment portfolios.

Want Something Important Done? Give It to the Children

To finally embrace fossil fuel divestment represents an incredible triumph for climate activists.”

The decision to divest Harvard’s $42 billion endowment from all fossil fuels honors student protests that have pressured the Harvard endowment to transcend its legacy of profit above morality. An article this week in The Nation, written by one of many student activists who “petitioned, protested, and politicked,” breathed a proverbial sigh of relief that Harvard “finally announced that it would divest from fossil fuels.” Ilana Cohen shares how their advocacy “clearly demonstrates what sustained student pressure can do. The move sends a powerful signal that the costs of clinging onto what is inevitably becoming the bygone fossil fuel era are simply too steep.”

Harvard student activists had met with members of the Harvard Corporation, several of whom Cohen says “have personally profited from the fossil fuel industry.” Not deterred by repetition of “the same empty talking points,” the students “risked and incurred arrest, storming the Harvard-Yale field in the largest university divestment protest ever.”

Cohen explained how, most recently, the students filed a legal complaint against Harvard with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office. Alongside alumni and professors, the group argued that the university’s fossil fuel investment holdings violate the state’s Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which outlines certain “charitable” responsibilities for all non-profit institutions. The 56-page complaint was also signed by 9 local government officials, including Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu.

Cohen was not the only Harvard student activist to respond to the divestment announcement. Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard exclaimed, “It took conversations and protests, meetings with administration, faculty/alumni votes, mass sit-ins and arrests, historic legal strategies, and storming football fields. But today, we can see proof that activism works, plain and simple.” founder Bill McKibben joined in the victory, prodding other Ivy League universities to step up to fight the climate crisis.

Former vice-president, environmentalist, and Nobel laureate Al Gore tweeted that Harvard “is finally divesting” from fossil fuels. Like McKibben, Gore used the HMC revelation as a forum to pressure others to step up. “Let this be a strong signal to other institutions that the era of fossil fuels is coming to a close.”

Harvard Faculty Members, Too, Spoke out about the Devastation from Fossil Fuel Pollution

Earlier this year, an article on the Harvard Engineering page tracked new research about the “mounting evidence that air pollution from ongoing dependence on fossil fuels is detrimental to global health.” Citing the more than 8 million people who died in 2018 from fossil fuel pollution, the authors argued that death totals were much higher than previous research had suggested. The study estimated that exposure to particulate matter from fossil fuel emissions accounted for 18% of total global deaths in 2018 — a little less than 1 out of 5.

Harvard is situated in one of the regions noted to have the highest concentrations of fossil fuel-related air pollution — Eastern North America, as does as Europe and South-East Asia. So, too, do these areas have the highest rates of mortality. The researchers state that the findings underscore the detrimental impact of fossil fuels on global health. “We can’t in good conscience continue to rely on fossil fuels, when we know that there are such severe effects on health and viable, cleaner alternatives.”

Coauthors Alina Vodonos and Joel Schwartz, affiliated with the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), developed a new risk assessment model that linked the concentration levels of particulates from fossil fuel emissions to health outcomes. This new model found a higher mortality rate for long-term exposure to fossil fuel emissions, including at lower concentrations. The study reinforced the paradox of the most intense research taking place on the Harvard campus at a time in which the HMC was supporting the very fossil fuels that caused the unacceptable particulate matter.

Final Thoughts about Harvard & Divestment

The power of young people is without a doubt the strongest it has been in many generations. In 2019, at the Global Climate Strike, teenage activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden called on world leaders to end the madness of fossil fuel investments and subsidies. Many student leaders have risen up, demanding that their universities protect their futures by addressing the climate crisis and other social justice disparities. As the New York Times notes, divestment battles are based on the idea that university endowments, because they are tax-free, have an obligation to attend to the public good, and huge endowments like Harvard’s may be instruments for change.

The Harvard Crimson editorial board did note that the HMC still has work to do, including letting “go of any investments, or the potential for future investments, in the prison-industrial complex, an instrument of racism and modern-day slavery. The tool of divestment must be used to square the endowment with these social imperatives of our times.”


Images provided via Harvard Press Kit

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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