Debating Divestment

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences discusses what Harvard ought to do about climate change.

A photograph of a glacier breaking apart in Alaska, with large chunks of ice falling into the ocean.
Hubbard Glacier, in Alaska, calves into Disenchantment Bay. Temperatures are increasing especially rapidly in the northern latitudes, with pronounced effect on glaciers and the Arctic Ice Cap. Photograph by Don Mennig/iStock

Faculty advocates of divesting Harvard investments in the production, distribution, and combustion of fossil fuels presented their case during the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) meeting on October 1—a prelude to a debate expected to take place at the next FAS meeting, scheduled for November 5. The two-part airing of the issue is the result of a question raised at the April 2 FAS meeting, when Vuilleumier professor of philosophy Edward Hall and several colleagues rose during the question period to ask President Lawrence S. Bacow whether he would participate in—or ideally lead—and open forum about fossil-fuel investments and Harvard’s role in responding to the climate-change crisis.

Hall acknowledged then that the president and the Harvard Corporation had consistently maintained the University’s opposition to divestment—a subject on which student, faculty, and alumni advocates of divestment have organized, protested, and spoken out for years, during which they had repeatedly sought such an open forum with the president and representation from the governing board. Bacow agreed to the request for such a discussion, leading to yesterday’s presentations. (The president, away for Rosh Hashanah, was not present; FAS dean Claudine Gay presided over the meeting.)

For the record, and as background for the November 5 discussion, Harvard Magazine publishes the speakers’ statements from yesterday’s meeting, which took the form of serial presentations with limited discussion after, rather than a debate. They focus principally on scientific knowledge about climate change, the resulting impacts, and divestment, but also on broader University actions encompassing the institution’s academic mission and its daily operations.

It is not yet known what action FAS may be asked to take formally—nor, given the Corporation’s responsibility for such investment policy, what effect FAS’s powers of persuasion or legislation may ultimately have on the University’s decisions.

“Now act as if it’s real”:

Edward Hall, Vuilleumier professor of philosophy

At last April’s FAS meeting, several of us asked President Bacow to lead discussions within the FAS about Harvard’s response to the climate crisis, particularly in its investments. He agreed, and we are looking forward to a series of open discussions of climate issues in this venue. He will attend our next meeting. Today we lay some crucial background for those discussions, provided by my colleagues Jim Anderson and Naomi Oreskes. (My colleague Joyce Chaplin will be speaking for Naomi, as she can’t be here due to illness.) We are also drafting a White Paper on Harvard’s response to the climate crisis, which we will circulate in the next two weeks.

The discussions to come must focus in a serious way on the issue of divestment and reinvestment, even as they address other responses. Institutions with the cultural and intellectual authority that Harvard possesses can waste no time in showing the world that and how they are addressing the climate crisis. That will require thinking together about our financial investments and the way in which our choices concerning them signal our commitments, a topic we will take up in earnest at the November FAS meeting. It will also mean thinking together about, among other things, our investments in teaching, in research, in ways to guide and inform public discussion, and in our own efforts to draw down and eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels. In short, Harvard needs to be, and to be seen to be, a world leader on this issue.

Already much is being done. The Task Force headed by Rebecca Henderson and Bill Clark aims at reducing and eventually ending Harvard’s own fossil-fuel use. Within FAS there is world-class research being done by a great many colleagues. There are working groups on climate issues at the Kennedy and Business Schools; the Law School, the Medical School, and the School of Public Health. The Harvard University Center for the Environment regularly addresses climate issues, as does the graduate program in Energy and Environment and the series in Environmental Humanities.  There is teaching in several departments and programs, not only SEAS [School of Engineering and Applied Sciences] EPS [department of Earth and Planetary Sciences], ESPP [the Environmental Science and Pubic Policy concentration], but also in [the departments of] Government, Economics, History, English, Philosophy, and more. The University has a Climate Solutions Fund. The Dining Halls, Campus Services, and the Office of Sustainability have all been doing admirable work.

But. The FAS faculty has never as a group discussed the nature of this crisis and how we might address it better and more fully. It is imperative that we do so. What we need is a shift on the part of the university as a whole, one that will promote, amplify, and dramatically extend the excellent efforts just mentioned – and in so doing, show the world and our peer institutions what it means to take a position of true leadership in addressing the most dangerous calamity humanity has ever faced. We need to do this in clear recognition of an unusual opportunity that we share with very few other institutions – certainly, not with our political institutions. And that is that we can both make a difference, and be in it for the long game

We are grateful to President Bacow for his recognition that this crisis has to be on our agenda. And I am immensely grateful that we have, in Jim, Naomi, and Joyce, such dedicated and brilliant colleagues to begin this critical faculty-wide discussion by laying out crucial parts of the scientific and political components of the climate crisis.

Before turning things over to them, I would like to end on a personal note. Until a little less than a year ago, my own attitude towards the climate crisis consisted of a mix of resignation, anxiety, and complacency. I saw certain things I could do and not do: Fly less. Recycle more. Shift to a mostly vegetarian diet. Offer sympathy to young people—as if what they want is our sympathy. But I couldn’t get myself to see beyond that. That changed, thanks to conversations my wife and I had with our older son last winter. It wasn’t that he told us anything we didn’t already know. It’s that he made a simple and powerful request, and got us to hear that request. It is the very same request that we mean to be making to Harvard as an institution:

You know the truth. Now act as if it’s real.

“Human vs. nature”:

James G. Anderson, Weld professor of atmospheric chemistry

The irreversible nature of climate change, driven by extraction, distribution, and combustion of fossil fuels, begins in the Arctic.

Irrefutable observations demonstrate that 75 to 80 percent of so-called permanent floating arctic ice melted in the past 35 years. When this Arctic Ice Cap existed, as it has for over 100,000 years, it protected the glacial systems of, for example, Greenland, through the summer melt season, which in turn constrained sea level rise. This is no longer the case.

Perhaps more striking, only 5 percent of remaining Arctic ice is more than 4 years old. 

In addition to controlling rates of sea level rise, arctic ice systems exert decisive control over Earth’s large scale climate structure, a climate structure that now exhibits increasing frequency and intensity of destructive storm systems, shifting patterns of greater agricultural drought, higher wildfire risk, more flooding risk and coastal storm surges, and increasing, precipitous temperature extremes. 

Consider for a moment the consequences of drought-induced food and water shortages. These food and water shortages trigger increasing refugee flow. From Syria, Central Africa and Guatemala, all places that have experienced droughts and climate shifts affecting agriculture and water, five million refugees have fled. This has ignited a profound shift in the political complexion of both Europe and the United States. 

While climate change disproportionately harms poor countries, communities, and individuals, larger refugee flow disproportionally targets developed nations. The United Nations forecasts that the refugee flows, triggered principally by irreversible climate change, will reach 100 million by 2050. Given the repercussions today of but five million refugees, we ask what societal instability will result from 100 million refugees fleeing for their lives? History holds answers.

Fear-driven political shifts divide nations and are manifest in the breakdown of global cooperation today, a situation that mirrors Europe in the 1930s. The debates between Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, where Churchill recognized the depth of the crisis, but Chamberlain argued for “peace in our time,” inform us with an stark admonition.  

The analogue of “peace in our time” from the 1930s, today is “climate denial and inaction in our time.”

Yet the battles of World War II, as devastating as they were, pitted human vs. human. The battles were, in the collective sense, on even ground. What we face today is a vastly different differential. 

For example, a modest storm releases ten thousand times the energy of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki; a typical hurricane releases ten million times the energy of that bomb; the thermal energy circulating between Earth’s surface and atmosphere each year is tens of thousands of times greater than the energy required each year to melt the Arctic Ice Cap at the observed rate. While it seems [incredible] that an ice cap, stable for over 100,000 years, could disappear in just 30 years, when you examine the quantitative facts, the case can be made that it is remarkable it survived three decades.

What we have initiated now, with the extraction, distribution, and combustion of fossil fuels, is not human vs. human, but rather it is human vs. nature. For anyone who has quantitatively studied these odds, it is clear that the relentless, destructive power at nature’s command far exceeds that available to humans. There is but one outcome if “climate denial and inaction in our time” persists. 

Emerging generations will suffer the full brunt of the consequences of our insufficient action. And they will write the history of the first half of the twenty-first century, a time when we have marginally sufficient time to recover; to recover only if decisive action is taken at least on the scale of that required in the first half of the twentieth century to contend with the consequences of global conflict. 

This history of the current day will define our responsibility—our students will explicitly define that responsibility in writing—for what is unfolding with respect to the impact of fossil fuel combustion on economic instability, instability of global societal structures, and the profound consequences that will follow. This history will define not only what is unfolding but who is responsible: responsibility for “climate denial and inaction in our time.” 

The failure to divest from fossil fuels, particularly for institutions that exist for the express purpose of preparing the emerging generation to take informed, proactive positions in society, that failure to divest, is an express form of “denial and inaction in our time.” 

The perceived international position of Harvard University places this university directly in a position of leadership. Leadership in education, leadership in research, leadership in ethics, leadership in bettering the fate of the human condition. This places great responsibility on this University.

Consider for a moment the impact that headlines around the world would have announcing that Harvard University was divesting from fossil fuels—and why it was divesting.

Is there another act available to this university that would have comparable impact?

If we persist on the current course of extracting and combusting fossil fuels, the tenuous foundations of societal stability will be no match for the consequences of the resulting climate disruption. 

The time, I contend, for concerted, overt action is now, before Harvard relinquishes its position of leadership.

(Some of Professor Anderson’s research has been previously covered here and here.)

“Deliberate doubt-mongering”:

Naomi Oreskes, professor of the history of science

The history of human-caused climate change is, to a great extent, the history of denial. We are not in our present predicament because the science is unclear. Nor is our problem of taking the crisis seriously just because of cognitive or psychological difficulties. It’s also because of deliberate doubt-mongering. Fossil-fuel companies knew the risks of burning their products for the climate, they worked proactively to cover up that knowledge and discredit climate science, and they tried to protect their own assets from climate impacts by using the very same science they sought to undermine in public.

This has played out on two levels.

First, by the direct undermining of public policy, through lobbying and duplicity. The duplicity has been egregious when individuals acting on behalf of fossil fuel industries claim one thing in public but then use money to support something else. This has been the case for more than two decades, and it continues to be the case today. One recent example: the case with the 2018 carbon-tax initiative in Washington State, which petroleum companies spent $28 million to defeat. K. C. Golden, former director of Washington State’s Energy Policy Office, made this comment: 

There was a time when I thought the oil industry could be a partner and could navigate the transition to a clean energy future. But I think that time has passed. The logical fallacy is this: Any climate policy that effectively prevents catastrophic climate chaos would render a huge fraction of their assets—their booked reserves—worthless, and at this point that would have to happen quite quickly. So they may eventually feel compelled to get on board with “a” climate policy, but not one that really does the job. It’s us or them now. 

Duplicity is also obvious when comparing the public statements of some large fossil fuel firms to the political donations their executives make, and the voting records of the politicians whom they support.

Second, fossil-fuel industries engage in indirect undermining of attempts to move to alternative energies, thus weakening public support for such action. Their consistent strategy has been to delay and extend the extraction and sale of coal, oil, or gas; they are retaining and projecting into the future business models that clearly subvert the Paris goals, even as they might state their support for them. 

This is all now well documented, by me, and by other colleagues at leading institutions, including peer institutions Yale and Princeton. 

The systemic doubt-mongering raises two serious questions for us, as an academic institution: 

First, it challenges our belief that “facts win,” so all we have to do is just continue teaching and research as usual. It’s not so simple, and requires much more serious consideration and action.  When the fossil-fuel industry undermines public confidence in scientific evidence, then it no longer matters how much evidence we produce, or how persuasive, we as scholars, find that evidence to be.  

Second, it challenges our relationships with the industries responsible. This presents several ethical problems, each of which have become evident in relation to other donors, as well  (as most recently with Jeffrey Epstein): 

  1. Accepting funds from fossil-fuel interests for research. This can influence the focus of our research programs and the sorts of evidence that we bring to bear on crucial questions. It can also influence our judgements as to what sorts of solutions we consider practical and credible, versus solutions we consider unrealistic or even utopian. Insofar as our research guides our teaching, it can also influence the content and the tenor of our teaching.
  2. Naming buildings, programs, and so on after fossil-fuel interests.
  3. Inviting them “in good faith” to be part of events, when they are not acting in good faith. This occurred with a recent film screened at the Harvard Kennedy School that turned out to be paid for by Shell, which was not disclosed.
  4. Investing in them as part of our portfolio.
  5. Not disclosing our sources of funding when we speak as experts to the public or indeed to any audience not expert in the faculty member’s field or discipline, as with this faculty meeting. I note that the University rules of financial conflict of interest in fact require this: “Faculty members must make public disclosures of financial interests in related outside entities and sources of support when reasonable members of the audience would give weight to those interests in assessing the opinions, advice, or work they are presenting.” 

I want to argue that Harvard really needs to look hard at this. In all its dimensions.

I note that we need to learn from an earlier failure. Academia broadly failed on the tobacco issue. It was inadvertently made complicit in the tobacco pandemic, not least because of doubt-mongering by the tobacco industry, which helped set a playbook for the fossil fuel industries. We are now falling prey to this duplicity, yet again, with respect to climate change. The climate crisis is worse than that of tobacco. Climate change, as generated primarily by consumption of fossil fuel, threatens all of life on Earth, not just the lives of smokers and passive smokers. It’s a crisis of human rights, in which innocent individuals, especially the poor, and particularly women, children, and the elderly, stand to suffer the most. It’s a crisis of biodiversity, as entire ecosystems, such as the monumental Great Barrier Reef, face destruction. And it’s a crisis of ordinary life, as all of us, rich and poor, will be facing costly damages from a problem that could—and should—have been addressed thirty years ago. 

As with the tobacco pandemic, inaction isn’t OK. Faced with the problem of climate change, we must do better. 

(These remarks were delivered by Phillips professor of Early American history Joyce Chaplin, as Oreskes was ill. Oreskes has been a Harvard Portrait subject; her work has been reported here and here. Her new book, Why Trust Science?, based on her Tanner Lectures, will be published by Princeton University Press later this month.)

Voices from the Floor

Following the formal presentations, other members rose to speak from the floor.

Agassiz professor of zoology James Hanken, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, drew upon his field research to talk about climate change and biodiversity:

I’m speaking today to emphasize the need for Harvard to join with other institutions to immediately take bold and concrete actions that will diminish and eventually eliminate the major drivers of climate change, which if left unchecked will devastate global biodiversity and, ultimately, human society.

For many of us, the impacts of climate change, particularly those attributable to the burning of fossil fuels, have been experienced firsthand only in the last few years, whether through more intense hurricanes, devastating floods, more intense forest fires, or even only the need for more air conditioning on New England summer nights. For biologists, however, especially those who study natural populations in the wild, the effects of climate change are old news. We’ve been seeing them for decades. 

As a graduate student in the 1970s, I conducted extensive fieldwork in the highland forests of southern Mexico studying amphibian species that are found nowhere else. When I moved to Harvard in 1999 and returned to those same forests to renew my studies after a pause of more than 20 years, I found the forests were still there, albeit hotter and drier, but the amphibians were gone. Today, a further 20 years later, nearly all the species I saw in abundance in the 1970s are either extinct or critically endangered. 

Since the early 2000s, every other year I’ve taken a Harvard class on a spring break field trip to the lowland rainforest of Costa Rica, arguably the most biodiversity- rich country on earth, and each trip we’ve seen the resident populations of amphibians and reptiles get smaller and smaller.

In 2011, I was honored by having a species of tropical tree frog named after me. Pseudophilautus hankeni is found only in remote cloud forests at the top of several mountain peaks in the country of Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, as our planet continues to warm, the microclimate that provides the optimal combination of temperature and humidity that this and other cloud forest species require to survive and reproduce is being pushed up the mountains, and with it go these species. Eventually, though, there will be no higher elevations left to climb, and if current trends continue, Pseudophilautus hankeni is expected to go extinct within the next 25-50 years. 

I relate these anecdotes to emphasize impacts of climate change as they are experienced by individual people, but please remember that similar scenarios are being played out across the globe in real time, and they affect thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions of animal and plant species. Many of these species pollinate the agricultural crops that feed most of the world’s human population, purify and sustain supplies of fresh drinking water, represent potential sources of new medicines, and offer other ecosystem services. Last spring, a report issued by the United Nations estimated that one million animal and plant species are likely to go extinct in the next 25 years. Just yesterday, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature announced that 50 percent of the 400 species of trees found in Europe are likely to go extinct if current trends continue. 

Climate change represents an existential threat to global biodiversity within one human generation. We must act now, and act decisively, if the approaching global catastrophe is to be averted.

James Engell, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature, offered various concrete proposals for action:

I follow the eloquence of the previous three speakers and note, regarding climate disruption, a few things that FAS and Harvard can do in some direct and practical terms that we are not yet doing:

  • Curtail travel and substitute electronic communications for it (Skype, video conferencing).
  • Ask the Harvard Alumni Association to offset travel of all alumni travel programs.
  • Consider some kind of mandatory education in climate issues for all College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences degree recipients; we do this for sexual harassment and assault issues; it needn’t be a course for credit but it is something that all students should have.
  • Convene a carbon-neutral conference on climate change of the scope displayed by the conference on the Internet and Society run by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
  • The lights in the Faculty Room seem to be incandescent. [Engell’s subsequent observation: this is not confirmed, and the bulbs may be LEDs.] The point is, to do everything we can. It is All Hands on Deck.
  • Accelerate the Task Force plans for fossil-fuel neutral and fossil-free Harvard, 2026 and 2050 respectively. Just two weeks ago Prof. Sir David King, former chief science advisor to the British government, “says he’s been scared by the number of extreme events, and he called for the UK to advance its climate targets by 10 years.”
  • Press for better, more reliable public transportation in the Boston area. Currently the Red Line, the subway in general, and commuter rail—I know, I’m a rider on the Fitchburg Line—are not reliable enough to entice many people to stop commuting by car.

Let me quote from Susan Silbey, former Faculty Head at MIT and a faculty member of the Sloan School of Management, though in her statement, when she uses “MIT,” let me substitute “Harvard”:

“Time is running out.  Harvard, the United States, and the world face an existential threat unprecedented in human history…. If we truly want to make a better world, why have we not embraced this existential threat as the single most important challenge for Harvard? Why is climate change not the first and largest item on our agenda?”

From the floor, [Updated October 2, 2019, 1:25 p.m., to identify the speaker, Andrew Gordon, Folger Fund professor of history] a faculty member rose to acknowledge that there is a climate-change crisis, but to ask what the connection is between that and divestment—why that appeared to be being advocated as the only, or principal, way to proceed. Divesting tobacco investments did not cause any reduction in smoking, per se. Thinking about the November 5 faculty meeting, was divestment being advocated as an act of moral cleansing, or as a step toward more effective engagement on climate change—and if so, with whom?

Hall responded that there were distinct arguments for divesting Harvard’s investments, but that that did not exhaust the need to do a range of things. Divestment, he emphasized, is a political statement. Harvard’s decision to invest in or divest fossil-fuel-related activities would not be accompanied by any financial leverage on the affected companies, he continued. Rather, it would signal to other institutions where this institution stood, and would “change the public discussion.”

Lane professor of the classics Richard Thomas had spoken briefly earlier to urge faculty colleagues to attend November 5, when they would be asked to debate and act. (He noted then, as a classicist, that he was not a scientist, but that climate change loomed larger than any other issue he had encountered from the previous 2,500 years of human history where his scholarship focused.) Speaking again, he put divestment in the context of the faculty and University debates over apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s. The issue then, as now, he said, was “moral repugnance” at the state of affairs.

And with that, and the electrifying news from Dean Gay that Harvard’s undergraduate admissions policies had been upheld in a court ruling, the meeting adjourned, to return to that promised “public discussion” on November 5.







Read more articles by John S. Rosenberg
Sub topics

You might also like

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

Animal (Code) Cracker

After listening to leviathans, an undergraduate comes to conservation.  

Breaking Bread

Alexander Heffner ’12 plumbs the state of democracy.

Most popular

Prepare for AI Hackers

Human systems of all kinds may soon be vulnerable to subversion by artificial intelligence.

Teaching Nutrition in Medical Education

Will Harvard Medical School return nutrition instruction to pre-eminence?

The Missing Middle

How overheated political attention warps campus life

More to explore

Architect Kimberly Dowdell is Changing Her Profession

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

How Schizophrenia Resembles the Aging Brain

The search for schizophrenia’s biological basis reveals an unexpected link to cellular changes seen in aging brains.

Harvard Researchers on Speaking to Whales

Project CETI’s pioneering effort to unlock the language of sperm whales