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Harvard Faculty Members Call on the University to Divest from Fossil Fuels

This might be the highest-profile call yet to divest from fossil fuels.

by Brian Merchant
Apr 10 2014, 4:05pm
Image: Wikimedia

Nearly one hundred Harvard faculty members have signed an open letter calling on the university to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies. Harvard's is the largest university endowment in the world.

For the last few years, a national movement has put pressure on universities, foundations, and municipalities to divest from oil, coal, and gas companies. Led by student activists and organized by climate groups like, it has seen a number of significant victories—at least nine colleges and over a dozen cities have pulled their fossil fuel investments.

But getting major universities and pension funds to pull out has proved difficult. One of the most public battles has been between students of the nation's most prestigious university and its administration—and thus far, Harvard has refused to divest. 

Earlier this week, Harvard's president, Drew Faust, once again dismissed full-bore divestment in a public statement, though she pledged to make future investments more environmentally sustainable. For 93 Harvard faculty members, it wasn't enough. They have written and signed an open letter to the university, calling for outright divestment.

It is begins:

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.

It is a powerful, undeniable document, filled with pronouncements like those highlighted above (emphasis mine), and this one: "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."

The message is unequivocal: "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 authors also note that there's no reason to believe divestment would harm the university, and ends on a grimly resonant note: "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."