Harvard’s climate change problem

“Universities,” says Harvard, “have a special role and special responsibility to confront the global challenges of climate change and sustainability.”

Indeed they do. But by financing the exploration and production of fossil fuels, Harvard is failing to live up to that responsibility.

In an effort to hold the university accountable, a group of prominent alumni, led by former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth, will try to reinvigorate a campaign to persuade Harvard to divest its $40-billion endowment of fossil fuels.

Joining Wirth, a longtime climate activist, in the campaign are writer and activist Bill McKibben, former SEC commissioner Bevis Longstreth and Todd Gitlin, an author and scholar, all of them Harvard alums. Working with them are Gina McCarthy, the former EPA secretary, who now teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Stephen Heintz, who as president of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, led its successful effort to cleanse its endowment of fossil fuels. They’ll describe their plans on Earth Day, next Monday, as part of Heat Week, a week of climate activism at Harvard.

In a January letter to Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, Wirth and his allies wrote:

We believe that the University should immediately cease holdings in companies exploring for or developing further fossil fuel reserves. This can be a first step toward the long-term goal of fully decarbonizing the portfolio. We are well aware that this is a difficult challenge, but Harvard is capable of great challenges and rightly should be among the first to undertake the challenge of aligning its endowment with a bet on the future rather than the past. If Harvard can’t do it, who can?

They met soon after with Bacow and William Lee, a lawyer and fellow of the Harvard Corporation, and while the meeting was (of course!) cordial, Bacow signaled that he saw no need to revisit the divestment position laid out in 2013 by Drew Faust, his predecessor. “The endowment,” she wrote, “is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

Every now and then, though, Harvard has, in fact, used the endowment to drive change or reflect the university’s values. The Harvard Management Co., which invests the endowment, says in its sustainable investment policy that

very rare occasions may arise when companies’ activities are so deeply repugnant and ethically unjustifiable as to warrant the University’s institutional dissociation from those activities. In recent decades, such ethical considerations have led the Harvard Corporation to instruct HMC not to own shares in certain companies involved in the perpetuation of apartheid in South Africa, in the manufacture of tobacco products, and in enabling genocide in Darfur.

The question, then, is whether the fossil fuel industry’s actions have been repugnant and unethical. While there’s no doubt that coal, oil and gas have been engines of economic growth for centuries, the industry has recently gone to extraordinary lengths to oppose climate action, even as scientists agree that burning of fossil fuels at our current pace threatens human and planetary health.

Bacow says Harvard’s proper role is to work with the fossil fuel industry, which, as it happens, also works with Harvard. (BP, Shell and Chevron finance energy and environmental research at Harvard’s Belfer Center.) In a letter to Wirth and his colleagues, Bacow wrote:

We share the same basic goals in this area, but differ on tactics…My own view is that the university’s continued engagement with industry in this domain is more likely to achieve those goals than an approach that emphasizes stigmatization

This view is unsupported by history. Shareholder advocates focused on climate change have engaged with fossil fuel companies for nearly two decades, and they have almost nothing to show for it. ExxonMobil agreed to appoint a climate expert to its board, but the company remains almost entirely focused on producing oil and gas. No amount of engagement will magically transform fossil fuel companies into allies in the campaign to curb climate change.

Says McKibben: “Shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies has proved its uselessness, yielding less than a molehill when we must climb a mountain.”

It’s about politics, not economics

Then again, divestment alone won’t transform the oil industry either. The economics are daunting: The Go Fossil Free campaign launched by McKibben, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club in 2012 has yet to persuade any of the US’s biggest universities or foundations to divest. (Rockefeller Brothers, the biggest foundation to do so, has about a $1.2 billion endowment.) What’s more, it’s hard to know whether university and foundation could, by themselves, drive down the share prices of the oil majors. (Interestingly, after Harvard and many other institutions divested tobacco stocks, shares of the cigarette companies wildly outperformed the broader market until just a few years ago.) Finally, giant oil companies owned by the governments of Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran are unaffected by divestment campaigns because their shares aren’t traded on public markets.

But divestment can help change the politics of climate change. That, in fact, is the point — to demonize and weaken the fossil fuel industry. McKibben argues that divestment can “push the climate issue into the center of political debates, depriving the industry of some of the social license it needs to continue gaming the politics of the issue.” Or, as Stephen Heintz has said: “This is largely symbolic, but symbols have power. They motivate people. They inspire people. They can change behavior.”

That’s why this Harvard campaign is important. Harvard’s endowment is the biggest of any university, and its influence extends far beyond its investment portfolio. Harvard is, well, Harvard: It has educated eight US presidents, half the members of the Supreme Court, numerous CEO and world leaders, and so it has an unmatched ability to shape the values of future elites.

Wirth and his allies are argue that the university’s values should compel action.The oil companies, they say, have misled the public for decades about the threat of climate change, even when they knew better. They spent a fortune, McKibben says, building “an architecture of deceit, denial and disinformation.”

Gitlin told me: “Here’s Harvard — which is devoted to Veritas — and here are these companies that are devoted to the opposite of veritas. They’ve been lying machines.”

It’s a compelling argument. So, too, is the broader claim that the business-as-usual approach to endowment investing taken by Harvard is a wholly inadequate response to the climate crisis.

Wirth told me: “The traditional endowment investment policy simply is no longer credible — at Harvard or elsewhere. If we persist and focus, I believe we can have a real impact.” His group has raised foundation funds to enable the Better Future Project, a grass roots group based in Cambridge, to hire an organizer to support DivestHarvard.