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April 25, 2019

Harvard Heat Week Ignores Years of Divestment Rejections, Precedent and Sustainable Progress

This week marks Heat Week at Harvard, a series of events dedicated to promoting divestment on campus. Yet much to the dismay of activists, the school continues to choose active solutions over empty gestures. From the mouths of Presidents current and past, spokespersons and editorial boards, divestment has been firmly rejected.

First up on the week’s agenda was an Earth Day press conference, calling on the university’s $39.2 billion endowment to eliminate fossil fuel-related companies from its investment portfolio. Gina McCarthy, professor of the practice of public health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator was among those who on called for the university to act, stating:

“Fossil fuels have been the energy that we have used since hominids came on this earth, but we do not need to be Neanderthals in terms of understanding what we need to do moving forward. Let’s invest where justice belongs. Let’s invest in the future, not the past.”

Ironically, fossil fuels were not the resources of Neanderthals just a few years ago when McCarthy praised natural gas, calling it a “game changer” for lowering energy costs in low-income homes and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Even farther from her current sentiments were her statements lauding natural gas as crucial to addressing climate concerns:

 “Responsible development of natural gas is an important part of our work to curb climate change and support a robust clean energy market at home.”

Surely anyone that recognizes the immense benefits energy sources like natural gas provides would not be calling for divestment from these seems resources.

The call from McCarthy and broader Heat Week activities also ignore the years of progress made by Harvard to pursue sustainable efforts as an institution.  For example, visiting the school’s microsite will reveal student-led projects and leadership efforts that focus on quantifiable results. Given student investment in real sustainable solutions to address climate change, it’s no surprise that a university spokesperson responded to calls to divest with an echo of previous sentiments, saying:

“The university’s position, as it has stated previously, is that it should not use the endowment to achieve political ends, or particular policy ends.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. The statement given by university spokesperson Jonathan Swain is merely a paraphrase of University President Lawrence Bacow’s who stated less than a month prior before students and faculty:

“The endowment exists to support the institution, to support our students, and to support our faculty. And it was on those terms that our donors have entrusted the resources to us. They’ve said here, here are these resources which we want you to invest to support these activities—not to accomplish some other ends.”

Harvard’s stance on this predates President Bacow – and, frankly, it predates the hype of the divestment movement. This preeminent university has always, and will most likely continue to, reject divestment as futile, costly, and contrary to the values of the school, the promises made to donors and the purpose of the endowment in the first place.

Heat Week will culminate tomorrow in a protest on campus. As select voices choose to call for this empty gesture investment policy, here are some of the many voices who have said no to costly divestment at Harvard in the past.  It’s time for Heat Week’s supporters to listen.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow (2018): “I think there are far more effective ways for us to influence social policy, and public policy, as well, through our research, our scholarship, through our teaching.  And I think in the case of fossil fuels, we’re doing exactly that. It’s also the case that if we want to bring about meaningful change—as I think we should—in trying to help create clean paths to energy, that we need to be willing to work with those organizations and institutions that are responsible for the infrastructure that literally fuels our economy. It’s also the case that if we want to bring about meaningful change—as I think we should—in trying to help create clean paths to energy, that we need to be willing to work with those organizations and institutions that are responsible for the infrastructure that literally fuels our economy. It strikes me as hypocritical to say we’re willing to work with you, we’re willing to do research with you, we’re willing to engage with you, we’re willing to buy your product, while at the same time saying but we will not consider owning your stock.”

University spokesperson Melodie Jackson (2018):  “While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it. Harvard is fully committed to leadership in this area through research, education, community engagement, dramatically reducing its own carbon footprint, and using our campus as a test bed for piloting and proving solutions.”

University President Lawrence S. Bascow (2018): “The University should not use the endowment… to achieve political ends or particular policy ends. There are other ways that the University tries to influence public policy through our scholarship, through our research, but we don’t think that the endowment is an appropriate way to do that.”

The Crimson Editorial Board (2017): “We have expressed our criticism for the strategy of divestment many times in the past. Though the specific demands of Divest Harvard have changed, their underlying philosophy toward combating climate change has not. Simply put, it is the supply of and demand for fossil fuels that creates the market valuations of energy companies, not the reverse. Divestment has no ability to alter these basic economic realities.”

The Crimson Editorial Board (2017): “In the unlikely event that Harvard’s sale were to temporarily depress the valuation of these companies, the amount of gasoline pumped, electricity used, and heating oil needed would still remain unchanged. So too would the amount of oil drilled, coal mined, and natural gas harvested. Harvard might be the poorer, but emissions would be the same. Any case for divestment therefore operates purely on the symbolic level. Given that Divest Harvard’s most recent protest merely argued for the formalization of the coal investment moratorium Harvard has already instituted, they have conceded as much.”

The Crimson Editorial Board (2017): “In more normal times, it might be tempting to see divestment, however ineffective on various levels, as a no-risk option. Suffice it to say that these are not normal times. As Harvard has long argued, using the endowment as a political tool is risky… Such measures would be deeply harmful to the endowment’s ability to finance Harvard’s mission.”

Former President Drew G. Faust (2015): “I don’t think that divestment is an appropriate tool, because I don’t think the endowment should be used for exerting political pressure.  It is meant to fund the wide range of activities that the University undertakes.  As we said before, 35 percent of our operating budget comes from the endowment.  It should not be used as a weapon to exert pressure on one group or another.”

Former President Drew G. Faust (2013): “The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change. …I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day Given our pervasive dependence on these companies for the energy to heat and light our buildings, to fuel our transportation, and to run our computers and appliances, it is hard for me to reconcile that reliance with a refusal to countenance any relationship with these companies through our investments.”