Faculty Members Call for Divestment

In an open letter to Harvard’s president and Corporation, they cite many reasons for divesting fossil-fuel holdings.

Just three days after President Drew Faust outlined Harvard’s role and actions in combating climate change, nearly 100 faculty members called on the president and the Harvard Corporation to do more. The signers of an open letter calling for divestment include leading atmospheric scientists, distinguished professors from a wide range of academic departments, affiliates from nearly every school at Harvard, several department heads, and members of the scientific community. They emphasize the overwhelming evidence of fossil fuel as a primary cause of climate change, and decry what they call the industry’s expenditure of  “large sums of money to mislead the public, deny climate science, control legislation and regulation, and suppress alternative energy sources.”

“Our sense of urgency in signing this letter cannot be overstated,” the authors write.

Humanity’s reliance on burning fossil fuels is leading to a marked warming of the Earth’s surface, a melting of ice the world over, a rise in sea levels, acidification of the oceans, and an extreme, wildly fluctuating, and unstable global climate. These physical and chemical changes, some of which are expected to last hundreds, if not thousands, of years are already threatening the survival of countless species on all continents. And because of their effects on food production, water availability, air pollution, and the emergence and spread of human infectious diseases, they pose unparalleled risks to human health and life.

The letter goes on to argue that planned divestment would hurt neither Harvard nor the corporations from which the University might divest. Instead, the letter argues, “divestment aims to expose corporate attitudes and change corporate behavior.”

The authors frame divestment as an act of ethical responsibility, “a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means. The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests,” the letter continues. “If the Corporation regards divestment as ‘political,’ then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them. The only way to remain ‘neutral’ in such circumstances,” the letter states, “is to bracket ethical principles even while being deeply concerned about consequences. Slavery was once an investment issue, as were apartheid and the harm caused by smoking.”

(The Harvard Corporation is advised on matters regarding shareholder responsibility by two committees. A record of their work and past decisions—including the specific reasoning behind them—is available online.)

Noting that Harvard has divested in the past, the letter’s authors say that Faust’s statements on the issue to date “appear to misconstrue the purposes and effectiveness of divestment. We believe that the Corporation is making a decision that in the long run will not serve the University well.”

In response, the University issued the following statement:

President Faust recognizes that how best to respond to the threat of climate change is a question on which thoughtful people hold differing views. As she has written to the Harvard community, her focus is on how the University’s research and education programs can accelerate the transition to renewable sources of energy, how our institutional practices can best model a commitment to sustainability, and how our investments can take appropriate account of environmental, social, and governance factors in ways that advance the endowment’s paramount aim of supporting Harvard’s academic mission. 




This story was updated at 7:15 PM on 4-10-2014 to include the University’s statement in response to the open letter.

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