Harvard Moves to Divest From Fossil Fuels

The decision comes after a decade of intense pressure from student activists.

Harvard University clock tower

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In the end, persistence and courage, a most formidable duo, ultimately forced Harvard’s hand. After years of protests, lobbying, civil disobedience, and nonstop pressure by student activists, Harvard University announced last week that it would allow its remaining investments in fossil fuels to lapse.

In an email to Harvard affiliates, president Lawrence S. Bacow explained that the institution’s $40 billion endowment has no direct investments in companies "that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels" and that they have no intention of doing so in the future. 

"Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe such investments are prudent," he added. 

Activists, particularly those engaged with the student group Divest Harvard, praised the decision, but also noted that it will be some time before Harvard’s $40 billion endowment—2% of which is indirectly tied up with fossil fuels—represents a more sustainable future. This is because Harvard Management Company, the entity that controls the endowment, has commitments to private equity firms that invest in fossil fuels. Until those contracts expire, a process that will likely take years, Harvard will still hold ties to the fossil fuel industry. 

"So long as Harvard follows through, this is divestment," Connor Chung, a Divest Harvard organizer, told the Harvard Crimson last week. "This is what they told us for a decade they couldn’t do, and today, the students, faculty, and alumni have been vindicated."

"A Large Domino to Fall"

In response to the news, Divest Harvard lauded the decision as a solid beginning, but offered both critique and caution over its language. 

"Never once has it used the word 'divest,' even as it is now making clear commitments to undertake the divestment process," the group wrote. "That cowardice and its deadly consequences should not go unnoticed; Harvard continues to propagate a false notion of 'engagement' with the fossil fuel industry around decarbonization when, as our organizers have pointed out time and again, the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that fossil fuel companies are not embracing, have no plans to embrace, and are even endeavoring to block a just transition away from fossil fuels in alignment with Paris Agreement goals to curb dangerous and irreversible levels of planetary warming."

Others, however, such as Danielle Strasburger, a Harvard graduate and founder of the alumni divestment movement Harvard Forward, see the announcement as a signal to other institutions considering a similar move. 

"People do pay attention to what Harvard does," she told the NY Times. "The fact that Harvard is finally indicating that it is no longer supporting the fossil fuel community is a large domino to fall. Hopefully this will encourage other universities to put the pressure on those who haven’t yet."

Speaking at a press conference, Harvard grad and famed climate activist Bill McKibben concurred that the decision leaves peer institutions with "no place to hide," but lamented the time it took to reach it. 

"This day comes too late to save the people who died in Hurricane Ida, or to save the forests of the West that have gone up in the last six months, or, frankly, to save the people who will perish in the years ahead, but not too late to be a huge help in doing what we still can," he said. "By turning up the heat on Harvard and everywhere else, the people on this call have done a magnificent job of helping turn down the heat on the earth, and that is what we desperately need."

As for what’s next, Divest Harvard organizers say that, in addition to making sure the university follows through on its pledge, they want to next address what they perceive as "gaping holes" in its "net zero by 2050" endowment pledge. They also seek to eliminate Harvard providing access to fossil fuel companies to fund campus research, programming, or even recruit. 

"Decisive and timely action is the only solution to the climate crisis," they added, "and we intend to hold Harvard and all of its peer institutions accountable."