On Tuesday, members of the Harvard community gathered for a discussion on “Actually Confronting the Climate Crisis.” The panel, which featured student, alumni, and faculty voices from across the university, examined the failure of Harvard’s climate policies to date — and explored what it would take for Harvard to be a leader in the fight against climate crisis.
It was the first public event of the year for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, and comes in the wake of significant momentum for the campaign: in recent months, majorities of alumni, faculty, and students have voted to call on the university to divest, proving that the university administrators’ slow-moving and narrow approach to the climate crisis has lost the confidence of the Harvard community. With a new school year beginning, moderators Martha Denton (College ’23) and Suhaas Bhat (College ’23) reiterated the campaign’s belief that Harvard must step up to be the leader that these times demand — and reaffirmed the campaign’s commitment to mobilizing for a just and stable future.
Panelist Dr. Ben Franta (GSAS ‘16), a Stanford researcher who studies the fossil fuel industry, kicked off the panel by discussing the indispensability of divestment in meeting international climate accords, adding that “when you’re pushing for divestment you’re pushing for something that is very reasonable, and in fact has been backed up by years of scientific research.” Franta also discussed the ways in which special interests can warp institutional priorities, citing the millions of dollars which the fossil fuel industry has spent on Harvard professors and university research centers.
“The science has been settled for ages,” said Camilla Thorndike (HKS ‘20), an environmental activist who currently serves as the national advocacy director of ClimateXChange. “It’s not an information problem at this point — never has been. It’s been a problem of political will… Climate change affects everything, and the school is becoming irrelevant by not positioning these current and future leaders to understand the role that climate impacts will have on their areas of current and future expertise.”
Along with their discussion of how Harvard’s current climate plans fall short of what the climate crisis demands, the panelists also explored how Harvard could show initiative in response to these challenges. For Harvard historian Dr. Zachary Nowak (GSAS ‘18), it’s an answer that involves listening to students: “Harvard administration will loudly say that student protest will not change policy, up until the minute that student protests force policy change,” he said, citing the ways which student activism has led the University to the right side of history time and time again in the past. Jayson Toweh (HSPH ‘19), an EPA climate scientist, discussed the importance of democratizing university governance as a foundation for effective responses to crises, adding that when it comes to issues of climate education, climate research, and divestment, he was excited to be “bringing these issues to the table” as a newly-elected member of Harvard’s Board of Overseers.
Harvard may have hoped that by rolling out a vague and slow-moving 2050 plan, it could avoid further discussion of the university’s response to the Climate Crisis. But as the panelists’ comments made clear, by endorsing the fossil fuel industry’s vision for the future and ignoring the clear consensus of students, faculty, and alumni, Harvard is only losing the chance to lead. Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard continues to call on University leadership to come to the table and ensure the long-term success of the institution and the planet — because in a world on fire, the Harvard community is simply unwilling to accept inaction and delay any longer.
Members of the Harvard community — from any Harvard school — who wish to get involved with the campaign should fill out this form.