Divest Harvard Prepares Spring Blitz on Climate Change

A planned weeklong ‘mass civil disobedience’ campaign takes aims at Harvard’s stake in fossil fuels.


Photo by Olga Khvan

They have Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s blessing. Hollywood A-listers Natalie Portman and Darren Aronofsky are on board. And political and academic heavyweights including Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Cornel West have pledged solidarity.

Next month, Divest Harvard will look to leverage this growing roster of allies as it pushes through a weeklong campaign of teach-ins, sit-ins and “mass civil disobedience” aimed at forcing the Harvard Corporation to divest nearly $80 million away from fossil fuels.

It’s the latest spat in an ongoing battle that now includes a lawsuit, a student arrest, and plenty of headaches for Harvard President Drew Faust. The group’s demands are clear: Immediately divest from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies and halt all new investments into these companies.

Harvard’s response is equally clear: No.

“Disruptive—and what some people see as confrontational—tactics are absolutely necessitated by the situation. Harvard is too slow to change and reluctant to deal with matters of money, influence, and power,” said Talia Rothstein, co-coordinator for Divest Harvard and a sophomore studying history and literature. “Whose side is the administration on? Are they on the side of an industry that destroys the planet and exploits people?”

For Rothstein and fellow members, the administration’s silence is a fount of frustration. The university remains mum on a lawsuit filed in November by seven students who assert, “Investment in fossil fuel companies is a breach of [Harvard’s] fiduciary and charitable duties as a public charity.” And when Divest Harvard staged a daylong sit-in outside Faust’s offices last month, the president accused the group of using coercive tactics and refused to engage, according to Rothstein.

Faust issued a statement in October 2013 saying that “climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges,” but divesting could threaten the financial wellbeing of the institution and position it as a “political actor rather than an academic institution.” Faust and others maintain that funding research into climate change and potential solutions is more effective than divesting from fossil fuel.

“At a certain point, it became clear that President Faust and the administration wasn’t interested in a dialogue that reasonably debated divestment,” Rothstein said. “That’s why we’re no longer campaigning for open dialogue. We want full divestment now. “

Harvard is far from the only target for fossil fuel divestment. Climate change activists from Australia to South Africa to Venice Beach are calling for swift action from institutions with deep pockets, including the Vatican and CalPERS, California’s pension agency for state employees. But many believe Harvard, home to the largest endowment of any educational institution at $35 billion, could set a game-changing precedent.

“Harvard is an iconic fight,” said Jamie Henn, strategy and communications director for 350.org, a grassroots environmental group that supports Divest Harvard and similar initiatives across the globe.

The so-called “Heat Week” of activism is slated to kick off with a teach-in and run April 13 through 18. It’s not lost on the students that 30 years ago to the month, anti-apartheid activists were marching across campus, demanding divestment from companies with stakes in South Africa. Henn says the week will close out with a rally in Cambridge that he expects to attract participants from throughout New England.

“If Harvard divested from fossil fuels, it would be the divestment heard ’round the world,” Henn said.

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  • SageThinker

    The sad part is that divestment is a non-campaign of sorts. If all universities divested, it still would not reduce the global greenhouse gas emissions. Divestment is a symbolic hand-washing by the investing classes of culpability. It’s a kind of activism that seems like it’s doing something but in the end it’s actually wasting time that we could use to work on demanding a serious policy to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions by making fossil fuels less profitable and more expensive. That is the way to connect the economy to physics in the way that we need, to save our global ecology. Nothing less will work, and anything that distracts from the singular goal is actually counter-productive. There is much room for serious and rational discussion about how Harvard can help the world to curb fossil fuel use, but all sides would need to drop ego-based adherence to an ideology or a “side” for this dialogue to take place. I hope, with all my being, that this happens.