Earth Day Passed, Harvard Still Needs to Divest

After Earth Day 2020, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizers reaffirm their commitment to the campaign.

This article was co-written by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizers Jing-Jing Shen and Ryan Sears.

Earth Day came and went. For months, Harvard students had demanded a milestone of their university on the 50th anniversary of the celebration: divestment. Instead, the University insufficiently committed to decarbonize its endowment over the next 30 years, relegating itself to a special class of impotence and scientific myopia. 

It is clear: Harvard is more concerned with keeping a doubt-mongering fossil fuel industry as a part of our nation’s economic fabric than using its power to guarantee a better future for its students whose families and homes are directly impacted by climate change, as well as the future of the planet at large. As true as it was on the inaugural Earth Day — when 20 million Americans piled onto the nation’s streets and university commons, calling on their country to radically reimagine its economy dependent on environmental destruction — we refuse to despair. The struggle for climate justice continues. 

Where is the Planet Now?

At the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the environmental reality was dire: industries expelled pollutants into our air and water with impunity, Los Angelenos were forced to wear gas masks due to the city’s thick smog, the Cuyahoga River caught on fire several times, and the Santa Barbara oil spill killed thousands of birds and sea mammals. 

In response, millions of individuals of diverse political and social identities mobilized to demand decisive action, catalyzing a new generation of environmentalists. A wave of environmental legislation followed: the Environmental Protection Agency was established, the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were passed, the Endangered Species Act was implemented, and the newly-enacted Earth Day grew to become a global celebration.

Today, the threats to our environment and future have only intensified, while the same protections achieved back then now face erasure by the current Presidential administration. Greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel companies directly correlate with the emergence and exacerbation of the current climate crisis: since 1970, carbon dioxide emissions have risen by 90%, and are still rising. The effects of unmitigated burning of fossil fuels on the environment are highly visible: rising temperatures, species extinction, intensifying storms, and catastrophic sea-level rise. The consequences for humans are drastic, threatening the world’s most vulnerable populations with imminent displacement, food insecurity, and poverty for an estimated over 120 million more people by 2030. 

Harvard: Falling Short of Responsibility

As the global community rallied in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the spirit of climate activism and the intensity of the divestment movement on Harvard’s campus was palpable. Organizers held teach-ins and demonstrations, thousands of alumni signed petitions, and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) voted overwhelmingly, at a 179 to 20 margin, in favor of divestment.

After most moved off campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, student activists were forced to adapt. Organizing for Earth Day 2020 continued through virtual Zoom meetings, with students sending emails to the administration stressing that Earth Day was a historic opportunity for societal actors to steer investments onto a path of carbon neutrality and clean energy. Oxford University heeded this chance, pledging this week to fully divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies. Harvard lacked the integrity to do the same.

For Harvard to continue to contribute to the mercenary profits of the fossil fuel industry at the expense of our collective wellbeing is not only unsustainable — it is self-destructive. Why should we fear the risk of “alienating” fossil fuel companies when one hundred of them alone are responsible for 71% of global emissions? To divest from such companies is not to demonize them, but rather, to affirm that an industry that actively seeks to undermine environmental public policy and lobbies to limit the First Amendment rights of environmental activists cannot be a partner in good faith. 

Divestment is a Better Approach

Harvard’s announcement that it plans to strategically shape its endowment to achieve net-zero GHG emissions by 2050 is far too slow to transition to a clean economy and to achieve the necessary mitigation results. Scientists have made it clear that to prevent a global temperature rise beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to cut emissions, primarily from fossil fuels, in half by 2030. Waiting until three decades from now to achieve greenhouse gas neutrality — all while remaining invested in fossil fuel companies that plan to increase future oil and gas production — is a losing strategy that will drive unparalleled levels of environmental and humanitarian disaster.  

We cannot afford to wait, especially not until 2050, to divest. “Harvard’s endowment should be a leader in shaping pathways to a sustainable future,” wrote Larry Bacow, Harvard University President, in an April 21st letter to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. This is a step forward: Harvard’s official position has always been that the endowment should not be used as an instrument to influence social policy. But this Earth Day commitment only succeeds at accomplishing the bare minimum — recognizing that Harvard’s investment strategy is a critical tool in responding to the climate crisis. 

For student activists, this victory is small when weighed against the continued absence of  divestment from the climate change mitigation toolbox. While Harvard defends a policy of engagement with the fossil fuel industry to work together towards societal decarbonization, this cooperation is meaningless when the university refuses to cut current and future investments in industries that only seek to keep the world addicted to fossil fuels, without significant intention to grow renewables. The belief that fossil fuel companies will be partners in the global decarbonization process is groundless and misguided: these industries have historically engaged in deliberate denialism and misinformation, downplaying the scientific evidence linking their emissions to climate change and profiting while the world’s most at-risk populations bear the burden. Even with the explosive development of renewable energy in 2018, “big oil” directed a paltry 1% of its collective budget to clean energy initiatives while expanding operations to extract more gas and oil from tar sands and the fragile Arctic. How can engagement possibly be regarded as an effective way to interact with an industry we know to be morally bankrupt? Continued investment in these industries confers upon them not only financial capital, but also increased legitimacy and public power. 

For Harvard to continue collaborating with and even bolstering the environmental catastrophe fossil fuel companies wreak on the planet sends a profound message that profits are superior to people, regardless of the lives upended as a result. To be sure, Harvard divesting from fossil fuels would not in and of itself curb global reliance on fossil fuels. But with the largest academic endowment in the world, larger than the GDP of more than half of countries globally, Harvard’s global leadership on divestment — in addition to a larger climate strategy of reinvestment in clean-energy innovation, research, and teaching — would galvanize other institutions to follow suit.  By catalyzing a broader societal transition away from carbon-intensive sources to sustainable renewable energy, Harvard’s impact will not just be environmental. With environmental issues placing human health, economic stability, food security, and the existence of numerous island nations and indigenous peoples at extreme risk, divestment represents a recognition of justice, of an interconnected global community, and a commitment to an enduring, prosperous future.

Hope Remains 

Although Harvard remains equivocal in its commitment to facilitating a transition to a fossil fuel-free economy, our hope for substantive action endures. This collective hope is not found in our defiance of Harvard. Instead, it is rooted in a fundamental belief in human compassion, as well as a remembrance, and honoring of the rich tradition of student activism on Harvard’s campus. Student organizers today draw inspiration from the Afro-American studies, anti-apartheid, and living wage student activists, whose movements tell complicated stories of both disappointment and triumph. 

It was the tireless work of years of this student, faculty, and alumni activism that has pushed Harvard to acknowledge its duty to adapt its endowment to climate change risks. Likewise, it is that same organizing and groundwork that will pressure Harvard to act even more decisively than they have today. The promise of Earth Day 2020 endures: the time to divest is now.

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