It’s Time for Higher Education to Divest

This is an op ed written by Ilana Cohen, a first-year at Harvard University, where she is a leader of the Divest Harvard campaign, and a 2019 Divest Ed Fellow.

On January 28, Middlebury College moved to divest its nearly $1.1 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry. In the time since, a polar vortex has swept across the United States, claiming at least 21 lives in the Midwest. With global warming causing record-breaking heat levels, the freezing cold presents only one end of the extreme weather characterizing 21st century life as climate change becomes an imminent reality not only for those in front line communities but for a growing majority of Americans. If the dire forecasts of the latest IPCC report and National Climate Assessment are not enough of a wake-up call for our universities, perhaps these weather extremes can show the urgent need for climate action. Institutions of higher education must follow Middlebury’s lead in divesting their endowments from the fossil fuel companies at the epicenter of the climate crisis.

Divestment is not unprecedented. Only a few decades ago, college students successfully protested universities’ investment in firms conducting business with South Africa’s apartheid government. Since then, many universities have also divested from the big tobacco industry. Today, universities must again act to realize the moral principles they espouse. Investing in the fossil fuel industry and by extension, in its immense environmental and human costs, is not a passive action: complicity in an unjust and an unsustainable system is culpability.

Today’s students will disproportionately bear the burden of climate change as its effects become increasingly severe. That universities continue to leverage our futures for short-term economic gains is an abdication of their primary duty. As a student at Harvard, I am dumbfounded by the glaring hypocrisy of my university’s mission to “educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society” while refusing to display leadership of its own. With a nearly $40 billion endowment, Harvard is more than capable of pursuing sustainable and ethical reinvestment, yet it has remained intransigent about doing so.

Endowment managers often misrepresent divestment as undermining their fiduciary duty. In a report published last summer, GMO chief investment strategist Jeremy Grantham found that investors should not expect financial losses to result from fossil fuel divestment. Divestment may actually provide positive returns. An analysis by Corporate Knights shows that New York State’s pension fund would have earned $22.2 billion more had it moved to divest a decade earlier.

Meanwhile, Harvard has continued to recite tired arguments against divestment that make less and less sense in a world of increasing climate instability. Often, administrators object to using the endowment as a tool for furthering social change, fearing its “politicization.” Yet investment itself is inherently political. The choice to invest in fossil fuels over the future of today’s youth is political one; it is an equally political but overwhelmingly more ethical choice to prioritize young people’s futures instead. Divestment can help depress shareholder prices in the fossil fuel industry but more importantly, it can diminish the industry’s reputation, as with the apartheid South African regime. Peer institutions like Middlebury who divest can inspire one another to follow suit, growing a greater movement for climate justice and institutional accountability.

While crucial for furthering environmental sustainability on campus, resource efficiency initiatives are no substitutes for divestment. Where a university puts its money is a critical litmus test of its commitment to climate action. Furthermore, as Middlebury has demonstrated, campus sustainability and divestment are not mutually exclusive. Beyond divesting, Middlebury’s board voted to mandate that the campus runs entirely on renewable energy and works to reduce its overall energy consumption by 25% by 2028. Such ambitious commitments must become a baseline. Currently, Harvard’s campus aims to be fossil fuel-neutral by 2026 and fossil fuel-free by 2050. This admirable plan must be coupled with divestment to truly further a societal shift away from dirty energy dependence.

Already, over 40 American colleges have divested from fossil fuel companies, contributing to a net $8 trillion in global divestment commitments from the industry and reflecting a greater youth-led movement for climate justice. Around the world, tens of thousands of teenagers are leading school strikes for climate action. A few weeks ago, students at Harvard, Boston College, Northeastern, and Boston University came together in joint protest of fossil fuel investments. And this spring, Divest Harvard activists are planning vast cross-campus mobilization efforts as part of Harvard Heat Week (April 22nd-26th), a week-long series of actions to turn up the heat on Harvard to commit to total and immediate divestment by Earth Day of 2020.

As Middlebury President Laurie Patton remarked, “time is of the essence” when it comes to taking climate action. Students must turn the inertia of institutions like Harvard into a rallying force. We must take our futures — and the future of our shared planet — into our own hands. We must not only call out hollow arguments against divestment but also show reinvestment’s transformative power and affirm our right to shape our educational institutions.

Our universities’ failure to act cannot become our own. It’s time to divest higher education now.

To support, please follow Divest Harvard (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) and Harvard Undergrads for Environmental Justice (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram)!


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