Campus | April 19, 2017 at 11:22 pm

Action Needed: Divestment, Politics, and Morality



*The author is a member of the group Divest Harvard.

Coal has long posed a threat to environmental and human health, but the danger it poses has only grown in the past few months. It’s true that the burning of coal has represented a declining portion of energy production in the United States over the past 30 years, from around 50% up until 1985 to 32% in 2016. But the Trump administration wants to reinvigorate the coal industry. Given the direct dangers coal poses to humans, we must act.

Divest Harvard is a student activist group. On February 21st, we asked the administration that divestment from coal begin by March 10. Disappointingly, we received in return only another letter claiming that divestment is not in line with the University’s mission. But Harvard’s lack of action is irresponsible and risky.

To divest is to recognize the devastating consequences of supporting the energy industry as it wreaks havoc on the environment. It is morally, and intellectually, dishonest to continue investing—it suggests that the burning of fossil fuels, and investment in them, is a neutral act with acceptable costs.

This is not the case. The burning of fossil fuels has very real effects worldwide. Coal causes a wide variety of respiratory illnesses. Climate change’s effects are already being felt, whether that is through droughts in Syria that have exacerbated its civil war, or the growth in the El Nino Southern Oscillation that introduces uncertainty in fish stocks and food production across the southern Pacific Ocean. These problems seem menacing to us, but are even more acutely felt by residents of the global south. Estimates peg the annual number of deaths due to climate change at 300,000. Thus, divestment is not just a tree-hugging exercise of “high-minded moralism”: it’s a statement against an industry that produces devastating human, environmental, and security consequences.

But we all know that. And we all agree that climate change threatens us all. So why won’t Harvard divest?

Despite these realities, the administration refuses to divest based on the notion that divestment would constitute a political act, and thus be out of line with its mission of pursuing and disseminating knowledge. In a 2013 letter explaining the administration’s stance on divestment, Drew Faust voiced concerns over actions that would “appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution.” Moreover, some opponents of divestment claim that investment in fossil fuels doesn’t necessarily indicate approval of those activities.

But Harvard divested from the tobacco industry in 1990 because of “the desire not to be associated as a shareholder with companies engaged in significant sales of products that create a substantial and unjustified risk of harm to human health,” despite tobacco being a political issue. Thus, the University has shown in the past that it’s willing to engage in seemingly “political” acts when this choice is supported by scientific and moral reasons. The “substantial and unjustified risk of harm to human health” of fossil fuels is far greater than that of tobacco, the scientific consensus no less sound. Thus, by refusing to divest, Harvard implicitly condones the damage wrought by the burning of fossil fuels. And refusing to follow clear scientific and moral directives for fear of appearing “political” is foolish. Inaction on climate change will result in significant harm; we should not feel restrained from action by the intransigence of a certain political party. Must we wait until lawmakers—pockets enriched with money from the coal industry—come to their senses before it’s finally acceptable to act?

There’s another common argument against divestment that cites its supposed ineffectiveness. President Faust and the Crimson Editorial Board both recently opposed divestment because they claim market forces determine the success of fossil fuels, not the fraction of a percent of the endowment Harvard has invested in them. While this is true, this argument misses the point. The goal of divestment is not to singlehandedly tank the fossil fuel industry. Instead, it is to do what is morally right, while continuing the shift of endowments away from fossil fuels.

As Harvard students, we are direct beneficiaries of the endowment. We must show that we do not want to gain from dirty money. We will act to show that the University administration’s inaction is unacceptable, that the continued destruction of our planet is not part of the University’s mission. The research that Harvard professors conduct greatly enrich our knowledge and understanding of the world around us, but it is far better to act on results than to pursue knowledge and act as though that is enough.

Image Credit: Señor Codo, Flickr

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