A Faculty Motion on Divesting Fossil-Fuel Investments
Debate elicits ideas from an apolitical, science-based call to action, to a lower-carbon-footprint endowment portfolio.
As reported, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) at its regularly scheduled meeting on December 3 formally considered a motion directing the Corporation to shed any endowment assets invested in further discovery or [Corrected December 5, 2019, 8:50 a.m.: the motion addresses discovery and development of additional fossil-fuel reserves, so the word “development” is now substituted for “production,” published previously.] development of fossil fuels. Although this was the third faculty meeting of the semester largely devoted to divestment (see reports on the October and November meetings and speakers’ presentations), the discussion quickly disproved the notion that everything worth saying had previously been said by everyone who wanted to have a say: it turned out to encompass—from unexpected directions—vivid new formulations of previous arguments, and genuinely new perspectives, based in part on the prior meetings. (That made the relatively sparser attendance—attributable to snow, fatigue, or the timing, two days before reading period—all the more regrettable.) A professor with Red State roots, who had not previously taken part in the divestment discussion, passionately made the case for supporting the motion by reframing it as an apolitical way for Harvard to underscore its commitment to the search for scientific truth. And an economist who is a leading expert on asset management opposed the motion on the grounds that it is too narrow, and that the endowment assets ought to be managed broadly to encourage companies in which the University invests to reduce their carbon footprint.
The discussion took place during a contentious time on campus. Outside Emerson Hall (where the meeting was held, rather than in University Hall), picketers on the first day of a strike by the new Graduate Student Union could be heard chanting and drumming as they marched through the snow. The first-floor corridor of Emerson was lined with students advocating an ethnic-studies department, angrily protesting the recent decision to deny tenure to Clouse associate professor of Romance languages and literatures and of history and literature Lorgia García Peña. In a highly unusual breach of security, a student protesting the decision gained admission to the faculty meeting and stood, bearing a large poster, facing the stage, where President Lawrence S. Bacow and FAS dean Claudine Gay were seated. Bacow noted that the sign was blocking faculty members’ view, and asked the student to move to the side. The student declined to move. Bacow then asked for the student’s name, and was greeted with silence. He then said he would ask the faculty to vote to ask the student to move to one side, but several faculty members voiced “no,” and so, noting that the student had been “respectfully” asked to move, Bacow said the meeting would proceed. He observed levelly that it was a “poor precedent for us as a faculty to have our meetings disrupted in this fashion.” Throughout the meeting, the student appeared to be video-recording the proceedings, another outright violation of faculty rules—again without challenge.
In contrast, the discussion on divestment was completely civil, and on a high intellectual plane. It was distinguished from the earlier faculty discussions in two important ways:
- Corporation senior fellow William F. Lee attended as a guest, and spoke. He was unable to attend the November forum (former Corporation member Jessica Tuchman Mathews came, and reported back to the governing board). Lee has been the Corporation’s leading voice in explaining why Harvard has chosen not to divest fossil-fuel-related assets, and divestment advocates have long sought both the open forums provided in these faculty meeting to make their case, and an open forum at which Lee was present.
- This was the occasion for a formal motion meant to give the faculty a way to express its sentiments on the issue.
After Bacow introduced him, Lee explained why he was unable to attend the November meeting, and assured the faculty he had been briefed on and read the minutes of what had transpired. He noted that as Harvard’s counsel during the recent admissions litigation, he had come into close contact with faculty members, administrators, and staff members involved in the case, and was vividly reminded that they “have all come to Harvard for a higher purpose” than pursuit of economic gain or prestige. The Corporation, he explained, viewed the debate on divestment with “those values and that purpose in mind,” and he intended to take in the discussion as a “generous listener,” with the broadening perspective accrued during six years as chair of the Corporation Committee on Social Responsibility (which considers proxy votes and other matters) and six years as senior fellow.
Lee also noted that he had met individually and in groups with faculty members and students from across the University, and with alumni and others, to “hear their competing” views on fossil-fuel and other divestment proposals. On the underlying issue—the reality of climate change—and the need to take action now, he said, “We agree.” That meant that the question at hand is, “What action to take.” After the discussion, Lee said, he would report back to the Corporation and it would exercise its fiduciary responsibility, as best it could, in furtherance of the long-term wellbeing of the University. Lee was “very grateful for the opportunity to be at the meeting and to hear what you have to say” (his first time as a guest at a faculty meeting, he later noted, during his 43-year association with Harvard). And he said he was available for further discussion as faculty members wished.
The Motion: “More Than Letting Off Steam”
The motion, introduced by Cabot professor of English literature Nicholas Watson, chair of the department, says that
…the Corporation should instruct the Harvard Management Company to withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue, investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels, or in companies that provide direct support for such exploration and development; over a reasonable period of time, extend those instructions to advisers of investment vehicles used by Harvard’s endowment, including commingled funds where Harvard is not the sole investor; and ensure that any adviser who may be unwilling or unable to comply is replaced by one who is willing to carry out these instructions.
The motion follows years of advocacy for divestment by faculty members, alumni, and students (and now a slate of petition candidates seeking election to the Board of Overseers): the Harvard expression of a national movement. It was preceded by extensive discussions at the FAS meetings earlier in the semester, during which a philosopher, an historian, an economist, and scientists, among others, advanced the ethical case for divestment; put such actions in Harvard context; described the likely effect on endowment performance, if any; and underscored the scientific assessment of the seriousness and effects of climate change.
They were countered by colleagues who challenged the efficacy and political wisdom of divestment, and who emphasized Harvard’s role, as an educational and research institution, in pursuing those avenues of response to the climate crisis. Importantly, President Bacow reiterated his and the Corporation’s opposition to divestment—while also underscoring his understanding of the seriousness and magnitude of climate change, and of the University’s academic role in tackling the challenge. (The Corporation, as the fiduciary governing board, sets investment guidelines and policies for Harvard Management Company [HMC]; the fellows of the Corporation of course regularly consult with deans and faculty members, but they do not take directions from the faculties on such matters.)
The motion is thus advisory—a sense of the faculty—and as a substantive matter, must carry over to a future meeting, after the winter recess, for a formal vote. But the debates this fall have indicated considerable support among FAS members for going on record in support of divesting fossil-fuel investments, if any, from the endowment. Their case, reflecting those earlier debates, is encompassed in a white paper released for this meeting. Watson summarized it succinctly and fluidly in his statement as maker of the motion:
Thank you again, President Bacow, both for the chance to speak now in support of this motion and for the opportunities you have given the faculty to discuss the climate crisis and Harvard’s response to it at two earlier meetings this fall. As you said at our November meeting, these discussions have underscored the extent of our common ground when it comes to recognizing the gravity of the climate crisis, at least in principle. On a less happy note, though, I would add that our discussions have also underscored the extent of that common ground when it comes to our failure to turn that recognition into action, our agreement in principle into agreement in practice. As the horrible news has poured in through the fall about rates of global warming, extreme weather events, melting icecaps, habitat devastation, dying coral reefs, and species loss, amidst a new scientific consensus that all these things are happening faster than all but the most pessimistic earlier projections, it’s become clearer every day that we at Harvard, for all our good intentions, are also united in not yet having begun to devise, let alone implement, an adequate response to the crisis.
This is not at all to dismiss the laudable and significant efforts being made through Sustainability Harvard; nor the work of individual faculty members in their teaching and research; nor again the vision of the university as a “force against climate change” that you set out in your Harvard Magazine article in September, President Bacow. It is to reiterate the critical importance of scaling up these efforts urgently, and by an order of magnitude: of bringing them to the forefront, not only of Harvard’s research and teaching but of its public profile and its daily operations as an institution. It is now impossible for reasonable observers who believe in science not to recognize that this is an existential crisis for human civilization, indeed for all life on earth, a crisis already well under way and whose profound significance it is no longer possible to minimize. Only last week, the United Nations issued its 2019 Emissions Gap Report in advance of this week’s Madrid summit, arguing that “to stay within relatively safe limits, emissions must decline sharply, by 7.6 percent every year, between 2020 and 2030.” Although at present Harvard doesn’t have a system of monitoring in place that would allow us to tell, it seems improbable that we are on track remotely to match this level of cuts, and highly improbable if we take all of Harvard’s far-flung activities, not just our physical plant, into account. Whatever comes of these faculty discussions, and I’ll venture to add, whatever comes of this motion, this must change, and change on the kind of timetable the United Nations itself is urging upon us.
The White Paper, “Harvard’s Response to the Climate Crisis,” which has been circulated in advance of this motion—and copies of which are also available here—lays out what it calls “An ambitious leadership agenda for Harvard” in five areas: “Civic leadership, leading by example, research, teaching, and stimulating public discussion.” Each is subdivided into a number of ambitious yet practical proposals. The authors of this paper, and the larger group of faculty we consulted in preparing it, are eager to discuss these proposals and others like them. We’re still more eager to see the creation of the rapid-response task-forces of senior administrators, faculty, staff, students, and alumni that are going to be needed if anything remotely answerable to the scale of the problem we collectively face is going to be put into effect. Nobody connected with this huge and complex global institution, whatever their work and area of expertise, should understand themselves as unconnected with this crisis, or as unable to do anything about it. But a collective response is going to require sustained cooperation, a massive redeployment of resources, and determined and persuasive leadership. We acknowledge the courage as well as the commitment this is going to take from you, President Bacow, and from our deans and others. Since it is crucial that we face up to the climate crisis not only unflinchingly but constructively, as an institution committed to doing good in the world—and therefore committed to hope and to activism—we also look forward to seeing the university take advantage of the rich opportunities for teaching, research, and public outreach this crisis affords, as it has done at other moments in its long past.
But we are also convinced that financial divestment has to be an integral part of any answerable response the university makes. The White Paper gives two reasons for this, both of which are fundamentally ethical in character, although they take into account many factors, including economic factors and very much including the future of the institution and its public standing. I quote from the Executive Summary on page 2. First, the fossil- fuel industry is “engaged in behavior that is ethically abhorrent, to a sufficiently high degree to warrant divestment.” Second, the “societal change” the climate crisis requires us to negotiate, on a huge scale, is of such urgency and existential importance that “divestment should be considered as a means for helping to bring it about.” The paper acknowledges that some will consider disinvestment a strategy of last resort, as is historically the Corporation’s position. But it argues that the university is already at the last resort, at an institutional tipping point, as we may all be at a planetary one. In our view, there can be no question that Harvard must do all it can to take on publicly an industry that “continues to invest huge sums in the exploration and development of new fossil-fuel reserves, even though it is well known that the burning of less than all known reserves would result in planetary catastrophe.” Notice that this motion is aimed at this specific activity of the fossil-fuel industry and those that finance: the exploration for, or development of, further reserves of fossil fuels.
What is more, the White Paper does not accept the position the Corporation has historically adopted, that shareholder engagement is the way to bring about industry change. There is too little evidence that many serious efforts have been made in this direction, or that there have been many successes, given the number of years in which engagement has been a stated policy; and there is too much evidence of bad faith on the industry’s part, which the paper amply documents, thanks to the scholarship on this topic by one of its authors, Naomi Oreskes [read her October statement here]. More effective, we argue, would be a “widespread divestment campaign,” accompanied by a “clear and forceful statement of the convictions” that undergird it, aimed at creating “the conditions necessary for legislation and treaties to be enacted that would curb the destructive behavior of the fossil fuel industry.” Our motion, which we can hardly be accused of advancing frivolously or without laying our groundwork carefully, is aimed at initiating the chain of actions that would need to be taken for this campaign to take place. Although we’re aware that this won’t be easy, the motion is aimed at enlarging the common ground we share on the climate crisis, in such a way that we can resolve to make public our position on further fossil-fuel exploration and the development of new reservies and its ethically bankrupt, indeed nihilistic, logic. Only thus can we do our part to shift the wider conversation on what needs to be done to mitigate the environmental catastrophe that is already well under way.
In closing, I’ll add that, Harvard isn’t like other kinds of corporation in at least three ways. One is that, in this collegiate setting, a privileged group of employees (that’s most of us in the room) can freely propose, discuss, and vote on motions that could have a significant effect on the university’s governance and mission, and be heard not only with respectful attention but with an implied undertaking that, if our arguments are sufficiently persuasive, they will prevail. That’s why what we are doing in debating this issue is something more than letting off steam. A second is that the university is a charitable corporation with a philanthropic mission. However complicated the relationship between ethical ideals and institutional realities may sometimes be, in the last analysis we have values, and a charge to uphold those values and to be seen to do so. The third is that we all share two fundamental commitments that transcend, and should transcend, our commitment to the university itself: a commitment to the truth, veritas, wherever it may lead; and to our students, wherever that may lead.
One of the excruciating truths of the climate crisis, a truth that is truly difficult to face, is that it is in a real way a crisis that members of the generations mainly present in this room have created, or at the very best failed to prevent, and which our students are now realizing that they are obliged to inherit from us. We perhaps did not know that we were doing it, but we have broken a trust, the most solemn of trusts: to safeguard the future of the human community and of the generations that come after us. This is not something we should forget, and it is not something we will be allowed to forget.
Harvard can contribute immensely to the task of building a lasting, prosperous and just society for our students and children, and in so doing regain at least some of that trust. But this will not be possible so long as we support an industry which has not only deceived the public, but continues to appropriate reserves of nothing less than suicidal proportions. Our commitment to the virtues embodied in veritas requires more, requires better of us. I therefore call on all of us to support this motion, and the broad and ambitious agenda of which it is the leading edge.
Virginie Greene: “We Can’t Wait Any More”
Speaking in favor of the motion, professor of Romance languages and literatures Virginie Green made a moral case for action:
At our last FAS meeting, President Bacow emphasized the importance of recognizing our common ground as we engage in debate. I will start with assuming that we all agree that climate change is a fact, is human-made, and that fossil fuel plays a crucial role in it. We are divided though in our reactions to the most recent reports on global warming and climate crisis, and the growing evidence of climate disruptions. I quote here from the Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, dated October 2018:
“Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°degrees Centigradebetween 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate.” (Special Report IPCC “Global Warming of 1.5° C” October 2018, A.1)
And:“Pursuing 1.5°degrees Centigrademitigation efforts requires a major reallocation of the investment portfolio, implying a financial system aligned to mitigation challenges.” (Special Report IPCC “Global Warming of 1.5° C” October 2018, 2.5.2)
For some of us (I count myself in that group), the acceleration and worsening of the climatic crisis calls for immediate, extensive, and transformative responses. We can’t wait any more for slow, incremental adjustments of our economies, politics, and ways of life. We can’t wait for leaders in the fossil-fuel industry and in banking to stop pursuing short- and middle-term profit at the expanse of future generations. And this is not because these leaders are evil, but because our economic system is powered by profit and dependency. We are all depending on fossil fuel no matter how frugally we live.
Some have argued that advocating for divestment from the fossil-fuel industry as long as we continue to depend on fossil fuel is hypocritical. This argument leads to absurdities. It would be no less hypocritical to question, debate, or engage with the fossil-fuel industry as long as we not only use cars, central heating, and artificial lighting, but also wear any piece of clothing. To avoid hypocrisy, apparently, no one should dare to advocate for green energy and energetic conversion except outdoors and in the nude. Instead of hypocrisy, let’s talk of urgency. I ask colleagues opposed to divestment whether they agree that we have a big time-problem on our hands, and that it is not only a matter of implementing drastic changes in our societies and our lives, but to do it fast. If they agree, I will then ask whether they consider that measures which may have looked appropriate a decade or even less ago are still appropriate today. If years of engagement with the fossil-fuel industry have led us to where we are now in terms of environmental degradation, can we rationally bet on more engagement to achieve quickly the green energetic conversion that is needed to avoid self-destruction? If you agree with the necessity of finding new strategies and still refuse divestment, even the limited divestment represented by this motion, what do you propose? I have not yet heard or read any proposition that does not look like more of the same and hoping for the best, or waiting for miraculous technologies to materialize.
I don’t believe that divestment is the silver bullet that will solve everything. I think that divestment is at this moment a commensurate and appropriate measure that the Harvard Corporation can take to engage constructively with our times and prepare for a human future on earth. It should not be the only measure. As it has been long stated, including here a month ago and in the White Paper, research and teaching too are key elements in our collective response to the climate crisis. But doing only that would be like saying to our students: “This is the mess we are in; good luck to you in cleaning it up as soon as you will be in position of power, in 10, 15 or 20 years.” I don’t think our students will wait that long before letting us know that, by our lack of action, we have forfeited any intellectual and moral authority to direct them. It is now that we need to work together to defend their future, by doing everything we can, including divesting from companies planning to continue profiting from the planet’s destruction.
Richard F. Thomas: “The Growing Waters”
Lane professor of the classics Richard F. Thomas, who is a scholar both of Virgil and of Bob Dylan, pulled off a clever bit of contemporary literary research, addressing his case to President Bacow through their common interest in the singer/lyricist:
I would like briefly to make two points, one about generations and obligations across generations, and another about the morality, or ethics if you prefer that word, of Harvard’s current investment policy.
Mr. President, you and I have both been fans of Bob Dylan since our teens. You were kind enough to point me in the direction of a 2009 matriculation address you gave as president of Tufts in September 2009. You spoke effectively to the assembled freshmen, as the Great Recession was taking hold, about change and about the challenges was bringing: “climate change, health care, HIV, swine flu, nuclear proliferation, religious extremism.” You began by quoting from the song that was recorded when you were 12 and I was 13, on October 24, 1963, exactly one month before President Kennedy was assassinated. You quoted from the first verse of the song:
Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You'll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimming’
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin.
[Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” © 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music]
As recently as 2009 neither you nor anyone in the audience took the growing waters of that verse to be anything other than metaphorical for the changes and challenges you went on to mention
It is a remarkable fact that in the blink of a decade what we took as metaphor has come home as a reality. The waters have indeed grown, and they continue to grow. While some of those other changes and issues you enumerated remain a numb headache, the migraine that is climate change has taken its place as the challenge of our lifetime, without hyperbole an existential threat, to the detriment of the lives of all of us, in particular the poorest and most precarious of the world’s human populations and species.
The unprecedented challenge demands we respond to the question, what do we do and what do we do differently? Our White Paper sets out many of the ways forward, on which all parties will be in agreement. But today’s motion has to do both with the growing urgency of the problem, and with the ethical peril in which HMC’s policies place us as a community.
The Harvard Gazette, September 17, 2019 notes: “HMC plans to engage with oil and gas companies, utilities, and others to meet the Climate Action 100+ goals of curbing carbon emissions, strengthening climate-related financial disclosures, and improving corporate governance and risk management.”
The essence of our motion is very different from that of Climate Action 100+, which is a start, but the problem is that it is too late for mere starts, that allow the conducting of business more or less as usual, particularly in the absence of directions to HMC staff about what investments to choose or avoid. Hence our motion, at its heart
to withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue, investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels
I would like to examine this wording from a moral, or ethical point of view, and one that implicates all members of the Harvard community. When the endowment does well, we are all happy, whether that means we get a raise, see an expansion of financial aid, or are relieved that looming structural deficits in Allston will be taken care of without too much damage this side of the river. We therefore hope and desire that HMC will make successful investments.
In the current investment climate we all should therefore hope and desire that the companies in which HMC invests will be successful in exploring for and developing and consume the maximum amount of new fossil fuels. We should even be hoping for continued regulatory relaxation, as a means to that end.
In my view there is in that hope and desire a form of corruption, for all of us who hope for the success of the endowment’s performance. As individuals some of us have moved into pension funds with the lowest possible exposure to fossil fuels, so as to avoid a conflict in our personal aspirations—incidentally, the fund we moved into outperformed the one from which we moved over the last 1, 5 and 10 years. Our motion provides a way for Harvard to act similarly with regard to its endowment whose ethical positions should be of concern to its officers, that is the faculty.
To end on the generational note, yesterday UN Secretary-General António Guterres with a slight accumulation of metaphor asked “Do we really want to be remembered as the generation that buried its head in the sand, that fiddled while the planet burned?” (UN Secretary-General, UN News December 2, 2019). In the words of the 22-year-old with whom I began
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It is time I suggest to stop stalling. Thank you.
Kirsten Weld: “Whose Side Are You On?”
Professor of history Kirsten Weld ventured a prediction about the future, based on the morality of the University’s present investment posture:
Historians like me are supposed to analyze the past, not predict the future. Nevertheless, I feel confident saying this: Harvard will divest from the fossil-fuel industry. The question is when.
The science on the climate crisis, some of it produced by our own researchers, is abundant and irrefutable. Our students, who far more than us will live the consequences of the crisis, have implored us to heed the science and act as boldly as we can. They have, rightly, asked us: whose side are you on? We owe them a better answer than they have thus far received.
The way forward is clear: to starve the fossil-fuel industry of the capital, credit, and legitimacy it currently uses to not only cause, but to profit from, ecological catastrophe. Until Harvard separates itself morally from those activities, it is effectively endorsing them. It is choosing a side. And it is choosing the wrong side.
Many here believe that Harvard’s endowment must not be used as a mechanism for enacting social change. But let’s change the framework a bit in this inarguably exceptional case. What about using the endowment as a mechanism in service of the collective project of planetary survival? Shouldn’t that change our calculus?
In any event, the consensus among powerful and risk-averse institutions like ours will shift, whether on moral grounds or, as in the case of the University of California’s recent divestment decision, on pragmatic ones. We have two choices: we can either divest now, in a position of leadership. Or we can divest later, as part of a rearguard—one ethically and fiduciarily humbled by having waited so long.
Ned Hall: “The Single Most Important Act of Civic Leadership Harvard Can Take”
Vuilleumier professor of philosophy Ned Hall, chair of the department, who has been lead spokesman for divestment during the fall faculty meetings, then rose to say that the University could not, in face of climate crisis, “stay safely in our lane”:
I have been in several meetings with [Harvard College] Dean[Rakesh] Khurana where he has done something sly. Some issue will be before us, and Rakesh will introduce the discussion by asking, “If we were Harvard, what would we do about this?” That’s his way of reminding us of how remarkable a position Harvard occupies, and of the extraordinary capacity we, collectively, have to effect change. I came here almost 15 years ago, and will freely confess how pleasant it can sometimes be to bask in the many privileges that come with Harvard’s status. But with those privileges also comes responsibility: in particular, responsibility to the society of which we are a part—a responsibility that must, in extraordinary times, snap sharply into focus.
And these are extraordinary times. The climate crisis unfolds, horrifically, before our very eyes. If humanity had acted decisively three decades ago, we would never have needed to have these conversations. Instead, three decades of business as usual politics and commerce have brought us delay, deceit, and the danger of societal collapse and millions of species lost forever —within the lifetimes of our students. We know the truth, and it is past time to act as if it’s real. So we must ask ourselves Rakesh’s question: If we were Harvard, what would we do about the greatest challenge humankind has ever faced?
It has been suggested that what we should do is to stay safely in our lane: maybe teach a little more, maybe do a little more research. That suggestion ignores the sad and desperate fact that the lanes aren’t working any more. Certainly, we should do much more teaching and research. But to stop there is not to embrace our responsibility, but to betray it. And our students know this. Yes, they need and will benefit from our teaching. But ask them if that’s all they need from us, and they will wonder what planet you are from. (Evidently, not one in grave danger of collapse.) What they need from us, what the extraordinary times we find ourselves in demand from us, is leadership.
As we have made perfectly clear in our White Paper, that leadership must not end with divestment. But it should begin there. A broad campaign of divestment highlights the urgency of action to avoid or at least mitigate climate disruption, and helps create the public consensus necessary for legislation and treaties needed to curb the destructive behavior of the fossil-fuel industry, and build proper incentives for genuine solutions to the crisis humanity faces. Contributing to that campaign with a clear and forceful statement of the ethical convictions that lead us to do so is the single most important act of civic leadership Harvard can take, more or less immediately.
President Bacow, you have asked on several public occasions what will happen the day after Harvard divests. You have also noted, in your interview in Harvard Magazine, that you have come to appreciate “the power…of the megaphone that one is privileged to hold as the president of Harvard.” So I think we know how to answer your question. If we divest, and do it right—with a clear and forceful statement of principles, with a range of bold additional steps that we pledge to take, and with an unambiguous call to all other major cultural and educational institutions that have not already done so to follow our lead—here is what will happen the day after: It will be front-page news. It will be a jolt of adrenaline to the world-wide divestment campaign. It will be one more ray of hope for all those on the front lines of the battle to save our planet. It will tell our students that we stand with them in the fight of their lifetimes, and those students will finally know that they can feel proud to call this institution their home. In short, we will have shown the world—you will have shown the world—just what civic leadership, at a time that so desperately needs it, looks like.
James Engell: “Engagement Must Be Considered a Flat Failure”
Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell, another veteran faculty advocate of divestment, recapitulated much of the accumulating scientific evidence on accelerating climate change and took aim at one rationale for opposing divestment:
Thank you, President Bacow, and thank you, Senior Fellow Bill Lee, for coming today. Colleagues, if you did not attend the October or November meetings, Harvard Magazine online has detailed reporting. The FAS minutes of both meetings offer accounts, too.
The news of the last 12 months has been dark. The best that can be said is that there is still time to avoid some of the worst consequences of climate disruption, but time is running out. A few days ago, The Production Gap report, sponsored in part by the UN, indicated that national governments collectively report, since 2015, the continued production of fossil fuels projected over the next two decades at a level that subverts the Paris goals, and will, by 2040, witness fossil-fuel production at a rate double the maximum permitted to secure a 2-degrees Centigrade temperature increase. The executive summary states (p. 3), “This global production gap is even larger that the already significant global emissions gap, due to minimal policy attention on curbing fossil-fuel production.”
Shall Harvard invest in companies that consciously subvert the Paris Accord? Companies that continue further exploration for, and development of, new reserves of fossil fuels aresubverting the Paris Accord.
HMC refers to an agreement on methane emissions achieved by engagement with two companies, these emissions being a vexed issue, one in which the Obama administration issued rules and the Trump administration tried to reverse them. That seems the only substantive example of positive action from “engagement” stated or published for more than six years—and presumably there was engagement before that, too. Six years and running. It is a little like saying we have successfully engaged to fireproof the wallpaper but the house is burning down. Unless a significant list of engagement results is released, engagement must be considered a flat failure. After a decade of engagement with the fossil-fuel industry, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund concluded that meaningful engagement could not happen.
From 2010 to 2018, the largest fossil-fuel company in the United States spent a fraction of 1 percent of its operating expenses on low- or no-carbon energy development, despite persistent and continued advertising to the public implying an expenditure far greater. From oilprice.com, “The amount of money spent on clean energy by the oil majors is a pittance.” [Nick Cunningham, “A Draconian Crackdown Looms Over Natural Gas,” oilprice.com, October 16, 2019; “ExxonMobil, for instance, spent a tiny fraction of 1 percent of its overall spending on low-carbon technologies between 2010 and 2018.”]
Much has been stated about carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Carbon Capture & Storage Association itself indicates the recent figure for CCS is 5 million tons of carbon dioxide stored annually. That may sound high but it is less than 1/1000 of US annual emissions alone, about 1/5 of 1/1000 of global emissions.
The highest estimate of CCS projects currently under construction is to store 35.4 million tons annually, about 1/1000 of global carbon dioxide emissions. It’s a technology to promote, but it’s not making much of a dent and not doing it quickly.
An October report in the Chronicle of Philanthropy indicates that of philanthropies that had divested, “94 percent said the changes in their investment choices had resulted in a ‘positive or neutral’ impact on returns.” [Alex Daniels, News and Analysis, “List of Major Donors Divestment From Fossil Fuels Swells to Nearly 200,” Chronicle of Philanthropy, October 28, 2019.]
This October in the Geological Lecture Hall, Bob Stavins, environmental economist at the Kennedy School, introduced the esteemed economist Sir Nicholas Stern, chief author of the famous 2006 Stern Review and subsequent important reports. Understated but decidedly stern, the British economist repeatedly underscored the need for urgent action. He stated that investment portfolios of pension funds and of large institutional investors need rapidly to be aligned with sustainability. At present, the business models of fossil-fuel companies for further exploration and development do not fall into that category. Stern urged speed, including reform of finance and investment. “Company pension schemes to make sustainable funds the default option.” “All large institutional … to set out plans to make their portfolios entirely sustainable.” [Personal presence at Stern’s talk; also slide 31 from his talk, October 15, 2019, “Unlocking the inclusive growth story of the 21t century: the drive to the zero-carbon economy,” sponsored by HUCE.]
It has been suggested in the national press and elsewhere that those who advocate divestment do little else, but here is a much-abridged list of what faculty supporting this divestment motion have done in the past few years and are doing now:
•Designed and now executing observations to measure loss of Greenland ice cap thickness using solar powered aircraft and ground-piercing radar;
•Published numerous books and parts of books on climate and environmental issues;
•Taught at Harvard, and in international venues, numerous courses, seminars, freshman seminars, and tutorials in physics, chemistry, EPS, OEB, ESPP, history, health, medicine, the classics, economics, philosophy, and literature that address environmental and especially climate issues;
•Done field work identifying biodiversity threatened by climate disruption, in some cases leading to extinction;
•Lectured to alumni groups on climate change;
•Written about climate issues for national outlets as well as for scientific and other journals
•Headed the Environmental Protection Agency in the Obama Administration;
•Held climate-change seminars with public-school teachers;
•Consulted with the U.S. Surgeon General and co-wrote the amicus brief on behalf of health professionals in the case of Juliana v. United States (Our Children’s Trust);
•And gave Congressional testimony regarding “The Oil Industry’s Efforts to Suppress the Truth about Climate Change.”
Professor Jim McCarthy [professor of biological oceanography] cannot be here for medical reasons. Unsolicited, he wrote to volunteer his support for this motion and asked that his name might be invoked. Jim has many achievements, including former head of the Museum of Comparative Zoology and former faculty dean of Pforzheimer House, but among others these also: Co-chair of the IPCC working group that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Vice President and Harvard alumnus Al Gore [ ’69, LL.D. ’94], also an advocate for divestment; president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS); chair of the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists; and winner of the 2018 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, widely known as the Nobel Prize for the Environment.
It is fitting to note Jim McCarthy’s firm support for this motion.
Let me end by invoking the words of a great American naturalist from two centuries ago, John James Audubon: “A true conservationist …knows that the world is not given by our ancestors, but borrowed from our children.”
Jocelyn Viterna: “The Only Apolitical Way to Move Forward Is Actually to Let the Research Lead”
A newcomer to the debate, professor of sociology Jocelyn Viterna, then rose from the floor speak. Taking as her point of departure a critique of divestment made in November by Burbank professor of political economy James H. Stock, based on his experience on the Council of Economic Advisors under President Obama—and the subsequent overturning of decisions made then by President Trump—she drew on her personal experience to reframe divestment as an affirmation of the University’s commitment to the search for scientific truth, rather than as a political or partisan act. She began by summarizing the prior FAS discussions:
•Climate change is real and devastating. (Charles Conroy)
•Harvard has used its investments to take political positions in past. (Joyce Chaplin)
•There is no clear evidence that divestment from fossil fuels would hurt Harvard financially. (Stephen Marglin)
I found no flaws in the logic or extensive evidence supporting this argumentation, and perhaps more importantly, in the ensuing discussion, none of these points were attacked as either illogical or unsubstantiated.
Indeed, the anti-divestment group actually conceded most of the points of the pro-divestment side. Specifically, the anti-divestment group:
•Conceded that climate change is real and devastating.
•Conceded that Harvard certainly can take a political stance on this issue,
•Interestingly, the anti-divestment group never made any argument about whether and how divestment could affect Harvard’s finances negatively. I certainly am in favor of Harvard remaining a financially sound institution, so I think it’s surprising we’ve not heard them made.
After conceding or failing to engage all three of the pro-divestment points, the anti-divestment speakers offered two arguments against divestment.
•First, the anti-divesters suggested that, although Harvard can be “political,” they believe that divestment is the wrong political stance to take—divestment was regularly referred to as “symbolic” and the kind of move made by “coastal elites” that actually would cause the majority of people in the U.S.—especially those poor folk who live in Red States and who rely on trucking or the coal industry for a living—to become even more closed off to arguments about climate change. It’s not that Harvard can’t be political, anti-divesters seemed to argue—it’s just that Harvard needs to attack the climate-change issue with more political savviness than divestment would allow. This is a problem governments should solve, so we need to work in strategic ways with governments, and divestment is not strategic.
•Second, even though we shouldn’t divest, there are many things we should do, as individual faculty. We should limit our flights, use public transport, and teach more courses on climate change, and so forth. There was even an example offered about how one of our faculty was invited to give a two-hour lecture on climate change to Harvard M.B.A.s who were very engaged in the topic, and then we were invited to imagine how those individuals, having experienced this lecture, would now go forth and change the world.
So I’ve not been involved in the divestment movement at Harvard in any way, but I’m here today to say I take issue with both of these anti-divestment arguments from the last meeting, because they are anecdotal, illogical, and unsubstantiated with evidence, and therefore, I find them kind of insulting. I find them insulting as a Harvard professor who deserves well -substantiated arguments in a faculty meeting, and I find them insulting as a long-time Red Stater, who doesn’t appreciate the caricature.
First, to the notion that divestment constitutes “coastal elite” politics that will anger Red Staters and harm, rather than forward, the debate:
[Holding up exhibit] This is a picture from the front page of the March 18, 2019, New York Times—it depicts a small mountain of ice sitting on the Ruzicka family farm in Verdigre, Nebraska, where it was deposited after extreme flooding which knocked down homes and barns, killed hundreds of head of cattle, and destroyed crops and fields. Five generations of Ruzickas have farmed that land. I know this because five generations of Viternas—my family—have farmed the land near the Ruzickas. My father was actually born on a farm just a few miles away from this Nebraska iceberg. Not only are the descendants of the Bohemian immigrants who settled this land now bankrupted by climate change, but they also didn’t plant crops this year. When your corn and wheat products are significantly more expensive next year, remember this newspaper article. Having been born and raised in rural Nebraska, I personally know many Red State farmers, and I have yet to meet a Red State farmer who does not believe in climate change. Farmers know the earth. They get climate change. And climate change not only plunged these farmers into bankruptcy and ruin, but it affected all U.S. families who buy bread, including those miners in Ohio who we heard about at the last meeting.
I was born in a rural agricultural community in Nebraska, went to high school and college in Kansas, attended grad school in Indiana, took my first job at Tulane University in Louisiana, and married someone from a trucking hub in southwest Missouri. Having lived 33 of my 46 years in Red States, I know a bit about Red State people and politics.
Red State people get climate change. They live with the effects of climate change: the flooding and tornadoes in Missouri, the hurricanes in Louisiana, the climate immigrants from Central America arriving in Kansas. Red Staters are not against policies to limit fossil-fuel production. The statistics back me up: 8 of 10 people in the U.S. now believe human activity is fueling climate change. This includes 60 percent of Republicans. To argue that we can’t divest because it would make us look like snowflake coastal elites to Red State voters is, quite simply, ridiculous. Climate change is one of the least partisan issues on today’s political agenda.
Moreover, in my—rather extensive—experience, the primary reason that Red state folks find progressive coastal elites distasteful is because they think we are hypocrites.
So if I were to imagine what Red State folks would stay about the conversations that unfolded in our last faculty meeting, it would be something like this: “Isn’t that just like the coastal elite—they complain vociferously about climate change to the audience in front, while taking money from fossil fuel companies for their own research—and their own aggrandizement—with the hand behind their back. Hypocrites.”
Everyone in this room knows that academia as an institution is under attack—we have all heard the arguments about “liberal academic bias” destroying our system of higher education. And it is very true that the percentage of faculty identifying as Democrats today is significantly higher than it was 50 years ago.
But how do we explain the increasing political polarization on U.S. campuses? One possible hypothesis, put forth by the far right, is that we academics police our journals and our hiring decisions so that we freeze out really good scholars who are doing high quality research that supports the politics of the right, and only allow research that supports policies of the left.
I personally haven’t seen much evidence that this is true.
Let me offer another hypothesis: over the past 30 years, the Republican party has increasingly moved to an anti-science, anti-evidence position. And naturally, academics—who by definition are individuals who place great value in science and evidence and logic—are increasingly moving away from the party that defines itself as anti-science. Now that is a hypothesis for which I see great support.
I actually agree 100 percent that universities should not be political in that universities should not be partisan.
But if we want to establish the place of universities in the world as the non-partisan, apolitical, evidence-driven entities who should be asked to weigh in on policies because we’ve actually done the research, and we actually have important, evidence-based findings to guide policy, then the last thing we should be doing is acting like we’re playing a political game. We should not be saying, “Hey, I know we’re mostly Democrats but see, we can adopt Republican policies sometimes too!”
The answer to establishing the importance of using non-partisan, apolitical, evidence-based university studies to guide federal policy is to powerfully reiterate every chance we get that our positions are not guided by our politics, but by our research. And if we as scientists and scholars actually believe the science behind climate change, then we should walk the talk and act upon that science.
So here’s the rub: Once you define divestment as political, then not divesting becomes a political stance as well. Perhaps the only apolitical way to move forward is actually to let the research lead.
Parenting books don’t agree on much, but the one thing they all agree on is this: What you do has far more influence on your children than what you say.
I can’t imagine it is any different for Harvard students. How can we teach our students about the apocalyptic trajectory of fossil-fuel usage in the U.S. (something we all agree upon), but yet continue to invest in fossil fuels? What exactly are these Harvard M.B.A.s going to do with their two-hour lecture on climate change, when they go out and become consultants for Goldman Sachs? I think they’ll have learned from Harvard that it’s fine to just talk about the horrors of climate change while continuing to work for a company that invests in fossil fuels. We will have taught our students that it’s enough to simply be outraged without seeking any changes. Is that the legacy Harvard wants to leave?
Finally, the last point that the anti-divestment speakers made was that we could all do our own individual part. To that end, I do hereby solemnly swear that I walk to work every day, I have limited my flying, I have made a concerted effort to stop buying plastic, and when my kids complain that the house is too cold I tell them to put on a sweater instead of turning up the heat. I will not be teaching a class on climate change because as a sociologist of sexuality and violence, I don’t think I’m qualified to teach climate change, and I frankly think there is a lot of work to be done on sexual violence, too.
But as a sociologist, I can tell you this:
Systemic-level problems demand systemic-level solutions, not individual-level solutions. My walking to campus every day is not going to save the Viterna family farm in Verdigre, Nebraska.
But my advocating for divestment from Harvard could make a difference—and not because it is a politically “symbolic” move.
It could make a difference because divestment from fossil is an investment in the importance of science. It’s an investment in the importance of scholarship. And it’s an investment in the importance of universities.
Divestment says we are scholars first. And we are confident in our scholarship—so we are going to put our money where our science is. We believe in our research, and we are going to operate as an institution that actually values research! And we are going to do this not because it’s political, not because it is partisan. Not because it’s moral. But because it is evidence-based. And that is exactly what we as a university are supposed to do. We are supposed to value the evidence, and let the evidence guide our work, and our institution.
Okay, so we all know the real reason that Harvard doesn’t want to divest. The real reason is that they don’t want faculty and students thinking that if they just protest long enough and hard enough they can get their way. If they let the faculty “win” on climate change divestment, then those faculty are just going to be back the next year with another demand, and that’s not behavior that they want to encourage. (Harvard administration and the Corporation read the parenting books, too).
So maybe the solution is for the administration to not to see this as bowing to faculty demands, but rather as building on faculty research. Because the reality is, you all pay us a lot of money to do this research. You should value it. And act on it.
Because if Harvard refuses to value scientific research in the making of its policies, then Harvard is becoming its own worst enemy. We shouldn’t wonder why scientific research is increasingly devalued in todays’ world, and in todays’ politics, if our own institution—our own administration—devalues this same research in the very policies guiding our university.
John Y. Campbell: “Discourage the Flow of Capital to All Carbon-Intensive Activities”
Olshan professor of economics John Y. Campbell—an expert on investment management, who has been a member of the HMC board of directors, and who is a founding partner of Arrowstreet Capital, LP—then rose to suggest that the divestment motion, focused on the supply of climate-altering fossil fuels, was too narrowly drawn. Instead, he suggested Harvard’s endowment ought to be managed to incentivize lessening demand for such greenhouse-gas-emitting sources of energy. He thus pointed toward an investment strategy aimed at encouraging companies in the portfolio to reduce their carbon footprint (and ended with a pointed note on academic’s carbon-intensive travel practices):
I am John Campbell from the economics department. I study financial markets, I participate in the asset-management industry, and I have served on the board of the Harvard Management Company from 2004 to 2011.
I agree that the climate crisis is the defining challenge of our age, and Harvard needs to rise to the occasion. The white paper refers to a “collective, emergency” response, and I think this language is entirely appropriate.
I also think it can be legitimate to use investments to express moral convictions and to try to influence the world for the better.
However, this is most straightforward in circumstances where a company produces a product that we can unambiguously condemn and avoid using ourselves—such as blood diamonds or tobacco. Unfortunately none of us are yet in a position to take this uncompromising stand with regard to fossil fuels. Therefore the motion under discussion strikes me as too rigid. It focuses too narrowly on fossil-fuel producers and pays to little attention to the sources of demand for fossil fuels.
I would argue that what we want to do is to reduce the carbon footprint of Harvard’s entire portfolio as a way to discourage the flow of capital to all carbon-intensive activities, and to increase the cost of capital for companies that engage in them. Even though Harvard’s portfolio is too small to have a measurable direct effect on carbon-intensive stock prices, if enough other investors follow suit the effect can be significant.
The proposal under discussion looks only at fossil-fuel producers, but alternatives exist. The Greenhouse Gas Protocol measures corporate emissions in three ways. Scope 1 includes only direct emissions from sources owned by the company. Scope 2 also includes emissions from electricity purchased by the company. Finally, Scope 3 looks at emissions also from the supply chain. Scope 3 is most relevant but hardest to measure.
However carbon footprint is defined, the smart way to reduce it is to penalize the average footprint of the portfolio rather than creating a rigid exclusion list that attempts to divide companies into “saints” and “sinners.” Some European institutional investors are proceeding this way, and in public equity markets it is quite possible for asset managers to handle a carbon-footprint penalty using agreed footprint measures provided by commercial data vendors and updated regularly as corporations change their practices.
If we go down this road, we should not expect to make money doing it. In fact, divestment (or a more subtle form of carbon-footprint control) can only do good in the world by raising the cost of capital for carbon-intensive companies, which means that they will deliver higher average returns than low-carbon companies. Some people claim that carbon divestment can deliver predictably higher average returns, but this is a classic example of wishful thinking. I think the right case to make is instead that the financial cost to Harvard will be modest if a judicious carbon penalty is used.
Finally, I would like to endorse the white paper’s proposal that Harvard should lead by example—and specifically the paper’s call to reduce academic air travel. It only takes a few minutes with a carbon-footprint calculator, such as the one at coolclimate.org, to realize that academics have much larger than average carbon footprints because of the amount of air travel we do. Technology has reached the point where we should be able to reduce this drastically while still interacting with colleagues around the country and around the world. Harvard and other leading universities are in a good position to accelerate change in this area.
Arthur Kleinman: “A Campaign of One Billion Dollars”
Rabb professor of anthropology and professor of medical anthropology Arthur Kleinman rose to suggest that the faculty encourage Harvard to think big about climate-change scholarship and teaching:
If this faculty agrees that global climate change is the existential threat of our time—meaning a threat akin to or greater than the threat of nuclear war during the worst days of the Cold War—then we as a faculty should be asking for far more from Harvard than disinvestment, though it is a reasonable and necessary first step.
Our request should be for an appropriately large commitment by the University in keeping with the enormity of the problem. That commitment is foreshadowed in the material before us by a list of research, teaching, advocacy and policy initiatives that could be undertaken.
Imagine the galvanizing dramatic symbolic effect if we asked our President and the Corporation to commit to a fundraising campaign (something Harvard is superb at doing) to make Harvard a leader in the development of solutions to global climate change and their implementation—a campaign say of one billion dollars to support across all the schools the magnitude of research, teaching, advocacy and policy needed to seriously address this existential threat.
That would be a most powerful, defining action by our University for a world historical problem that would likely receive wide attention and could aim to galvanize a moral movement in our society equivalent to say the AIDS activism movement of the 1990s. So why are we not making this kind of request of the President and the Corporation?
Closing Remarks: “Enlightening and Helpful”
President Bacow then characterized the afternoon’s conversation as “very enlightening and I think helpful.” He thanked the participating speakers, and said that there were many suggestions in the faculty white paper—and in the ideas raised during the day’s meeting—on which the University and the faculty could work together. He reemphasized his view that climate change represents an existential threat to humanity—a challenge requiring that everyone work together on solutions. He promised to take the discussion back to the Corporation, and to continue it between now and the next faculty meeting, when a vote on the motion could be taken.
Bill Lee repeated his gratitude for the invitation to appear and speak, and especially for the “manner and passion” in which the views expressed were presented, without the degrading attributes that characterize much public discourse in the United States today. He wanted to assure the faculty that as it deliberated and made decisions, the Corporation was not worried about ceding control to the faculty or to any future group of protestors (as Jocelyn Viterna had suggested was the case); its members, he said, always tried to do the best thing for the University, based on listening to people with differing views and attempting to discern the best course for Harvard’s long-term interests.
The audience applauded, and the meeting adjourned, to resume formal deliberation in the next semester.