Last week, student organizers from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard (FFDH) met with administrators to discuss the state of Harvard’s response to the climate crisis. The students at the meeting were Ilana Cohen ’22, Claire Pryor ’22, Joseph Winters ’21, Connor Chung ’23, and Isha Sangani ’24. Representing Harvard was President Lawrence Bacow, Senior Fellow William Lee, and members of the Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility.
The discussion had been requested by students in hopes of identifying common ground, after months of growing community consensus — including resounding votes by students, faculty, and alumni — regarding the inadequacy of Harvard’s response to the climate crisis. “We’re here today as students who are deeply afraid for our future,” said Pryor. “We’re also here as students who share with you a love of this university and a deep conviction that Harvard must live up to its veritas motto in all of its practices — including its investments — to set a standard of institutional leadership.”
The first question, posed by Cohen, asked whether the Corporation would commit to responding to each point of the net-zero memo released in May by students, faculty, and alumni. The memo, which had been unacknowledged by administration, identified core weaknesses of Harvard’s 2050 carbon-reduction commitments and proposed seven concrete ways they could be strengthened, reiterating the campaign’s willingness to work with administration on further exploring them. Lee pledged to follow up offline, a commitment that FFDH appreciates.
Next, Winters asked why Harvard leadership has ignored repeated calls for fossil fuel divestment, even while so many of the university’s peer institutions — including Oxford, Cambridge, Brown, Cornell, and the University of California — have already pledged to divest. Bacow responded by citing the fact that each institution “has their own perspective,” and that divesting would hinder Harvard’s ability to pursue a net-zero emissions portfolio. Winters replied by pointing out the false binary being implied between divestment and decarbonization — many peer institutions like Cambridge and Oxford have pledged to do both, pursuing a net zero portfolio and dropping fossil fuel assets. Winters also asked whether Harvard’s unwillingness to follow its peers sprang from different evaluative standards, and Lee clarified that while Harvard continues to believe that divestment is merited in cases of ethical un-justifiability and moral repugnancy, he does not agree with judgements (such as those made by many peer institutions) that the fossil fuel industry has fallen to such a standard. While FFDH believes that the decades of lies and inaction from the industry have clearly established the industry’s behavior as ethically unjustifiable, the administration’s willingness to confirm the specific language of its evaluative standards is appreciated.
Throughout the discussion, President Bacow and other corporation members insisted on the value of collaborating with fossil fuel companies as a means to push them to be more sustainable and support clean energy. Chung addressed these claims, questioning whether shareholder engagement is an effective strategy to change fossil fuel companies’ core business models. Corporation member Paul Finnegan responded by citing recent emissions reduction commitments by fossil fuel companies, such as BP and ExxonMobil, as evidence that they are changing. Chung replied by pointing to these companies’ long histories of failure to follow through on promises, as well as the fact that the pledges cited by Finnegan are far less ambitious than the companies made them seem (e.g., BP’s climate commitments excluding roughly half the oil under its control, and Exxon’s pledges avoiding questions of net emissions altogether). Pressed further, the Harvard representatives did not directly respond to questions of whether Harvard had any evidence of shareholder engagement leading to changes in business models specifically. Chung argued that Harvard should have mechanisms to evaluate the efficacy of shareholder engagement, rather than trusting the tactic even in cases where evidence of its efficacy is absent, and stressed FFDH’s interest in providing input so that such a mechanism might be incorporated into future iterations of Harvard’s ESG standards.
Sangani then asked Harvard’s leadership how it reconciled its core value of veritas with the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long disinformation campaign and attacks on Harvard’s own researchers. President Bacow responded that “we will be dependent on fossil fuels for a long time, until we can shift to renewables,” and thus that academic institutions must collaborate with the industry on a scholarly level. “We wouldn’t be here if the fossil fuel industry had acted decades ago,” pointed out Sangani in return, offering that FFDH would be willing to work with Harvard to identify and explore cases in which industry anti-science behavior threatens Harvard’s academic mission.
Pryor closed the meeting by inquiring about the role of justice and morals in Harvard’s investments, asking whether Harvard believes that it has an explicit duty to align its investments with its broader social purpose. Lee responded by saying the university does have a duty to fulfil its mission broadly, including in its investments — a welcome recognition, and an important shift from administrators’ previous statements that the endowment should not be used as a social/political tool. FFDH appreciates the clarification, and expressed interest in further discussions on the relationship between these recognized values and current investment practices.
Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard continues to believe that in an age when the planet is on fire, it is immoral to invest in the arsonists. The organization remains concerned by the administration’s rejection of the clear will of students, faculty, and alumni, and it continues to fear that Harvard’s embrace of the fossil fuel industry’s vision for the future means that it is surrendering its chance to lead. Nevertheless, the opportunity to lay out potential areas of common ground was greatly appreciated.
With this meeting, FFDH has put an offer for dialogue and collaboration on the table. It is now up to the administration to decide whether to meaningfully accept it. Ultimately, the long-term success of the institution will be shaped by its leadership — or lack thereof — on climate change. And if Harvard wants to lead, it can begin by listening to the consensus of students, alumni, and faculty who believe in disclosing, divesting, and reinvesting holdings in the fossil fuel industry.