Tireless Organizing Yields Harvard Divestment Victory

Campbell Erickson

It is with great pride and joy that Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard celebrates a momentous victory for our community, the climate and divestment movement, and our planet. After nearly a decade of organizing by students, faculty, alumni, and community members, we have succeeded in pushing one of the world’s richest and most powerful universities to divest from the fossil fuel industry. For too long, Harvard has stood on the wrong side of history, lending legitimacy to the companies driving global warming and environmental injustice by investing part of its $42 billion endowment in them. Today, it stands with more than 1,300 institutions controlling over $14.6 trillion worth of assets worldwide in taking a clear stand against the industry’s deadly business model.

With Harvard’s recent announcement, it is clear that the university is beginning to align itself with the demands of climate science and climate justice — undoubtedly, in large part due to the tireless work of our campaign’s activists. President Lawrence Bacow’s email announcing the university’s divestment commitments came only two days after roughly 80 students demonstrated their support for divestment in the middle of Harvard Yard. The email also explicitly acknowledged the university’s fiduciary duty to “to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission,” and therefore to cease investing in companies that explore for or further develop reserves of fossil fuels. Such language directly invokes our legal complaint against the university’s fossil fuel investments, filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, which argues that such investments violate Harvard’s fiduciary duties as a nonprofit investor. And of course, the announcement came after 10 years of demonstrations, petitions, and elections by students, faculty, alumni, and community members all favoring fossil fuel divestment, including a historic protest at the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game, which involved hundreds of participants and represented the largest-ever protest for fossil fuel divestment from a university.

President Bacow’s language showed, however, that Harvard still remains afraid to fully sever ties with the fossil fuel industry. Never once has it used the word “divest,” even as it is now making clear commitments to undertake the divestment process. That cowardice and its deadly consequences should not go unnoticed; Harvard continues to propagate a false notion of “engagement” with the fossil fuel industry around decarbonization when, as our organizers have pointed out time and again, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that fossil fuel companies are not embracing, have no plans to embrace, and are even endeavoring to block a just transition away from fossil fuels in alignment with Paris Agreement goals to curb dangerous and irreversible levels of planetary warming.

To be clear, Harvard’s announcement is only the very beginning of what the university must do to fully realize its responsibilities to its community and society. First, it must follow through on its commitment to cease all further investments in fossil fuel companies, and move immediately to phase out the indirect investments constituting less than 2 percent of the endowment (which could be up to $840 million). Second, it must address gaping holes in its net-zero by 2050 endowment pledge by outlining interim targets for endowment decarbonization, guaranteeing that investments will focus on absolute emissions reductions rather than carbon offsets, and committing to pursue investment opportunities that support a rapid and just transition to a clean energy economy. Third, Harvard must stop lending its prestige and power to the fossil fuel industry in ways other than investment — for example, by ceasing to allow fossil fuel interests to fund campus research and programming or recruit on campus. At the very least, Harvard must take immediate steps to make transparent the imprint of fossil fuel industry funding on campus and in the research it produces. Furthermore, Harvard must end its investments in all extractive and exploitative industries, including the prison industrial complex and the Israeli occupation of Palestine, in line with demands from the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign and Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine

Our campaign looks forward to ensuring that Harvard takes those necessary next steps. Accordingly, we welcome a meeting with the Harvard administration to discuss a plan for how it will uphold and bolster its climate commitments. Our campaign will continue to call for transparency and public accountability around the university’s endowment, its reinvestment into just causes, and an end to the corrupting influence of the fossil fuel industry on Harvard’s intellectual, educational, and charitable mission. Decisive and timely action is the only solution to the climate crisis, and we intend to hold Harvard and all of its peer institutions accountable.

We call upon Harvard to #divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies and reinvest responsibly.