Harvard faculty letter: divest university from fossil fuels

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Harvard photo"Our University invests in the fossil fuel industry: this is for us the central issue," 100 Harvard faculty members have written in a letter to the President of the university. They say: "Our sense of urgency in signing this Letter cannot be overstated. ... Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means. ... [N]ot only must research and education be pursued with vigor, pressure must also be exerted.  If there is no pressure, then grievous harm due to climate change will accelerate and entrench itself for a span of time that will make the history of Harvard look short."

From an Open Letter from Faculty of Harvard University to the President and Fellows:

April 10, 2014

Our University invests in the fossil fuel industry: this is for us the central issue.  We now know that fossil fuels cause climate change of unprecedented destructive potential.  We also know that many in this industry spend large sums of money to mislead the public, deny climate science, control legislation and regulation, and suppress alternative energy sources.

We are therefore disappointed in the statements on divestment made by President Faust on October 3, 2013 and April 7, 2014.  They appear to misconstrue the purposes and effectiveness of divestment.  We believe that the Corporation is making a decision that in the long run will not serve the University well.

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

Divestment is an act of ethical responsibility, a protest against current practices that cannot be altered as quickly or effectively by other means.  The University either invests in fossil fuel corporations, or it divests.  If the Corporation regards divestment as “political,” then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.

The only way to remain “neutral” in such circumstances is to bracket ethical principles even while being deeply concerned about consequences.  Slavery was once an investment issue, as were apartheid and the harm caused by smoking.

In the past, the University did divest from certain industries on ethical grounds.  Harvard’s leadership—initiated by faculty, students, and alumni—is credited with making campaigns against apartheid and smoking far more effective. ...

If any doubt remains about long-term plans of fossil fuel corporations, consider the signature statement of the American Petroleum Institute: “a secure energy future for generations to come.”  API corporations are determined to produce more of the same “for generations”:  more fossil fuel extraction, more sales, more denial or evasion of science.  Coal companies, similarly, proclaim plans to continue mining for hundreds of years. ...

We know that fossil fuel use must decrease.  To achieve this goal, not only must research and education be pursued with vigor, pressure must also be exerted.  If there is no pressure, then grievous harm due to climate change will accelerate and entrench itself for a span of time that will make the history of Harvard look short. ...

*    *    *

Also see 

Democracy Now!: Momentum on Fossil Fuel Divestment Grows as Harvard Professors, Desmond Tutu Call for Action

On April 11 Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez at Democracy Now! interviewed Harvard Prof. James Anderson, the Philip S. Weld Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org, the organization that initiated the divestment campaign in 2012. Video of the segment:

James Anderson, on why he signed the letter:

"Well, I signed the letter because this fossil fuel question is unique in many ways. First, the combustion of fossil fuels has and will continue to bring serious and irreversible change to the structure of the Earth’s climate. And second, the fossil fuel industry has and will continue to provide very significant misinformation about this problem to the general public. A third issue revolves around leadership that I believe all universities should execute, and that was best captured, really, when President Bok divesting from the tobacco industry. And Harvard responded similarly to the apartheid question. And in the case of climate change and its relation to energy, this is the most serious problem facing this and subsequent generations. And so, I believe it’s crucially important for universities to step forward and exhibit leadership, because if they don’t, who will?"

And on working with the next generation of students:

"But this is a very important statement on the contribution of the universities to the future of this country. And you—I teach an introductory course that couples the principles of chemistry and physics to the larger global context of climate energy, energy consequences, energy technology. And when the students simply see the facts, their immediate question is: "Well, what can I do about this?" And one of the things that they can do about it is to push the university to divest. It’s a very important venue for exhibiting what they can do at age 18 and 19. So, it’s a really important leadership issue, and it’s a really important venue through which students can actually begin an activist contribution to their own future and to the country’s long-term welfare."

Also see:

Climate Progress: Harvard Faculty Slam College Over ‘Misconstrued’ Climate Change Pledge

DeSmogBlog: Campus Discontent: Washington University Students Sit-In Against Peabody, Harvard Faculty Call for Divestment

Climate Progress: Nelson Mandela’s Legacy for Climate Hawks: ‘It Always Seems Impossible Until It’s Done’

Nelson Mandela, who died yesterday at age 95, leaves two legacies for climate hawks — the necessity of persistence and the value of divestment. ...

Earlier CSW posts:

Fossil fuel divestment campaign: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

On the recent Do the Math tour, Bill McKibben, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, author Naomi Klein and other speakers and a team of organizers launched a campaign calling on churches, colleges, and others to divest their stock portfolios of investments in fossil fuel corporations -- as was done in the the 1970s and 1980s as part of delegitimizing the apartheid regime in South Africa.  We support this.  McKibben, in Washington, D.C.: “The fossil fuel industry has behaved with such recklessness … that at this point they deserve to lose their social license, their veneer of respectability.”

Obama’s climate action plan: The devil is in the follow-through

Something else in the speech that jumped out at me was Obama’s nod (or, rather, shout out) to the nationwide Go Fossil Free divestment campaignaimed at getting “educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good” to divest from fossil fuels.

His “Invest. Divest.” exhortation was embedded in his eloquent concluding remarks to his campus audience and seemed aimed especially at the younger generation.

McKibben on Keystone XL, the Obama problem, and fossil fuel divestment

Check out McKibben's latest post on the Obama problem and the battle over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and his speech, on accepting an environmental award in Oslo, calling on Norway to divest its sovereign wealth fund (from Norway's offshore oil riches) from fossil fuel investments.

Stephen Schneider and the millennial generation

"Whenever we find Steve’s courage to stand up to the forces of unreason, Steve is cheering.  And whenever we open our office doors and our lives to students, guide them, mentor them, and teach them, Steve will be smiling."

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One Response to Harvard faculty letter: divest university from fossil fuels

  1. Tuba A says:

    I agree with the open letter to Harvard. I think it is important that major stakeholders and influential parties, such as this university, make decisions that are pro-environment. Devesting in fossil fuels will not only be a great step toward sustainable energy and a healthier environment, but also Harvard can be a chain reaction for other huge universities to jump on board.

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