Legislators Introduce Bill to Compel Harvard’s Divestment

The Massachusetts General Court, or the state legislature, meets in the Boston State House (Photo: King of Hearts, Wikimedia Commons)

Responding to the risks that Harvard’s roughly $840 million in fossil fuel investments pose to the public interest, Representatives Mike Connolly (D — Cambridge) and Erika Uyterhoeven (D — Somerville, HBS ’19) introduced a bill utilizing the Legislature’s Constitutional oversight authority to compel the university to divest from fossil fuels. If successful, the legislation would require Harvard’s governing boards to take more aggressive climate action.

According to its backers, the legislation is made necessary by Harvard’s insufficiency on climate and the resulting harm for the people of Massachusetts.

“The Massachusetts State Constitution imparts the General Court with mechanisms for providing oversight of the President and Fellows of Harvard College,” Rep. Connolly said. “Today it is incumbent upon us to use this oversight power to directly compel Harvard’s divestment from fossil fuels for the sake of its students, the Commonwealth, and the planet. I look forward to partnering with Rep. Uyterhoeven, these student activists, and the larger divestment movement to advance this important legislation.”

The bill, An Act compelling the president and fellows of Harvard College to divest from fossil fuel (HD.4016), is cosponsored at time of docketing by Representatives David LeBoeuf (D — Worcester, College ‘13), Jay Livingstone (D—Boston), Michelle DuBois (D — Brockton), and Lindsay Sabadosa (D — Northampton). Under the Legislature’s special powers of oversight over Harvard’s governance, granted by the Massachusetts Constitution when necessary to protect Harvard’s interests and those of the public, the bill seeks to “benefit the inhabitants of the commonwealth” and “prevent the catastrophic destruction of the commonwealth’s natural resources” by prohibiting any governing body of Harvard from directly or indirectly investing the endowment’s funds in fossil fuel companies.

“I am so grateful for the bold leadership of our youth climate activists that has brought forth this bill,” said Rep. Uyterhoeven. “Harvard University owes it to their students, faculty, staff, and all residents of the Commonwealth to divest from fossil fuels. I am excited to work with Rep. Connolly and our powerful climate coalition to advocate for this necessary legislation.”

Among the harms faced by the Massachusetts public as a result of the fossil fuel industry’s actions are rising sea levels. (See more sea level rise projections for the Harvard community here.)

According to the EPA, specific climate risks faced by Massachusetts residents include sea level rise, coastal flooding, increased temperatures, greater disease incidence, and changing precipitation. The fossil fuel industry was fully aware of the risks posed by its products years before everyone else, but rather than working toward a just transition, it sought to cover up these dangers and maximize profit from the status quo.

This bill comes after nearly a decade of sustained activism by members of the Harvard and Massachusetts community. Recognizing the financial and moral untenability of the fossil fuel industry, many peer institutions (such as Brown, Cornell, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of California, and the University of Massachusetts) have already committed to divestment. Harvard, however, has long refused to engage in meaningful dialogue around the issue (including through the administration’s current stance of refusing to even meet with concerned students), even as the fossil fuel industry experiences a sustained depreciation in value and puts Massachusetts’ many frontline communities in danger.

And it’s only one of many examples of the growing recognition that Harvard’s investments harm the public as a whole. In March, nearly 120 elected officials, climate scientists, community organizations, and Harvard students/faculty/alumni filed an official complaint with the office of the Massachusetts attorney general asserting that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments violate its fiduciary and charitable duties. The complaint is currently under consideration by the office.

“By continuing to invest in the very companies that have spent decades attacking Harvard’s own faculty, undermining science, and harming vulnerable communities, Harvard is being reckless and extremely irresponsible,” said Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizer Klara Kuemmerle (College ‘24). “So long as Harvard refuses to act in the best interests of the university and Massachusetts as a whole, the state has no choice but to step in. Harvard has the potential to use its resources to become a leader in the fight for climate justice, but to do so, it must start divesting from planetary destruction and reinvesting in a just and stable future.”

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