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Fossil Fuel Divestment: Reasons for Disruptive Forms of Protest Against the Harvard Corporation

03/06/2015 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

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Photo: Harvard students for fossil fuel divestment carry out a sit-in at the office of President Drew Faust in February, 2015.

Last month at Harvard, students performed their first sit-in of the offices of Harvard's president, Drew Faust, to increase the pressure for institutional divestment from fossil fuels. The Harvard administration denounced the protest, saying it was "disappointed" that students would employ disruptive tactics and that such protests "cross the line from persuasion to disrespectful coercive interference with the activities of others." Despite the Harvard administration's objections, more protests, including a week of civil disobedience, are already being planned for April by a group of prominent alumni including Bill McKibben, Natalie Portman, Darren Aronofsky, and former US Senator Tim Wirth. What has led to this escalation?

There are at least three major factors leading to the escalating protests, two of which are under the control of the Harvard Corporation, Harvard's governing board of 13 individuals, which includes Harvard's president, Drew Faust. The first factor is the Harvard Corporation's fossil fuel investment policy, itself, which is that investments should be made in fossil fuels with a focus only on monetary return and without considering fossil fuels' harms. Many members of the Harvard community find this policy objectionable. Another factor, just as important, is the manner in which the Harvard Corporation decided upon its fossil fuel investment policy and continues to defend it: by offering arguments that appear to be spurious, then refusing to participate in further discussion when asked by students, faculty, or alumni. Many members of the Harvard community find that modus operandi to be objectionable, additionally to and independently of Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy, itself. A final factor leading to disruptive and escalating protests is the disruptive and escalating nature of climate change, itself, which is a factor outside of the Harvard Corporation's control yet one that shapes the context of the Harvard Corporation's decisions.

Let's first consider Harvard's current fossil fuel investment policy. After student, faculty, and alumni constituencies asked the Harvard Corporation to cease investing in the coal, oil, and gas sectors, the Harvard Corporation decided to hold fast to a policy of maximizing investment return with these sectors without regard to the harms they cause through climate change and conventional air pollution. In some cases, the Harvard Corporation has argued that it not only should maximize return with these sectors, but that it is obligated to do so.

There are a number of reasons why this fossil fuel investment policy is objectionable to many members of the Harvard community. For one, it is similar in philosophy to the policy followed by fossil fuel companies and others with vested interests in maintaining the market dominance of fossil fuels. For example, those who fund or promulgate disinformation on fossil fuels and climate change, as well as those who lobby to impede public policies that would disadvantage fossil fuels, are, like Harvard, simply following a policy of maximizing return with the fossil fuel sector, directly or indirectly. Of course, Harvard doesn't engage in political lobbying to impede clean energy policies, because it is not a fossil fuel energy company. Harvard, however, does engage in lobbying related to matters of higher education, because it is in the higher education business. The parallel between the investment policy of the Harvard Corporation and those of for-profit fossil fuel companies is one reason many believe that the Harvard Corporation's policy makes it complicit in the climate crisis - not that Harvard is engaged in spreading disinformation or in fossil fuel lobbying, itself, but that the spirit of Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy, with profit maximization as the only goal, is similar to the policies of companies who do engage in those activities. It's hard to ask those companies to change when they are following the same investment philosophy as an institution like Harvard.

Another reason that Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy is objectionable to many members of the Harvard community is that there are many viable alternative policies available. For example, Harvard could cease investing in "worst offender" companies in terms of environmental impact, as Australia National University has done. Harvard could cease investing in companies that are engaged in funding disinformation on climate change, which undermines the University's mission, and/or companies that are engaged in egregious lobbying to impede an economic transition away from fossil fuels. Harvard could cease investing in coal, the most polluting fossil fuel and one that is technologically redundant in many cases, as Stanford University and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund have done, among others. Harvard could cease investing in fossil fuel resource activities that are demonstrated to be economically inconsistent with the global 2-degree Celsius warming goal, which would likely include coal, oil sands, and Arctic oil, and might include natural gas without carbon capture and storage. Or, of course, Harvard could cease investing in fossil fuels altogether, reflecting the fact that all fossil fuels cause harm and a belief that all fossil fuels should be replaced as quickly as is possible. A growing number of institutions globally are adopting investment policies such as these. Faced with these options and more, the Harvard Corporation's fossil fuel policy investment strikes some as an actively regressive choice.

Finally, Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy is objectionable to many members of the Harvard community because it foregoes an opportunity to take an impactful action related to climate change when such actions are needed. Multiple lines of reasoning suggest that institutional divestment could result in positive outcomes for society's efforts to mitigate carbon emissions. Harvard is highly visible culturally; it sets an example, whether it intends to or not, to global society of the right thing to do. Institutional divestment is thus likely to be socially impactful, as it delineates what is socially responsible from what is not. Harvard is also an important institutional investor watched by many other institutional investors. Indeed, many institutional investors have cited Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy in defending their own similar fossil fuel investment policies. Thus, if Harvard were to start taking account of the harms of fossil fuels when making investments, it is likely that other institutional investors would follow suit. If Harvard were to frame a change in its fossil fuel investment policy as a necessary alignment with the global 2-degree Celsius warming goal, then other institutions, including institutions with global influence, could be encouraged to do the same, and the pressure on governments to align their policies with the 2-degree Celsius goal could be materially increased. These lines of reasoning, among others, suggest that divestment could have a significant impact.

Thus, there are at least three significant reasons why Harvard's current fossil fuel investment policy is objectionable to many people: it echoes the policies of those with vested interests in the continued market dominance of fossil fuels (policies which disregard the harms caused by fossil fuels in single-minded pursuit of short-term profit), it rejects many viable alternative fossil fuel investment policies that would, at least to some degree, take account of the harms caused by fossil fuels, and it foregoes an opportunity to take an impactful action related to climate change at a time when such actions are needed. For many in the Harvard community, one or more of these reasons, or other reasons besides these, provide sufficient cause to engage in disruptive forms of protest against the Harvard Corporation, the body that determines Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy.

In addition to the Harvard Corporation's fossil fuel investment policy, itself, another factor that has led to escalating protests is the method in which the Harvard Corporation has decided upon the policy and continues to defend it. Specifically, the Harvard Corporation has followed a pattern of offering arguments that appear to be spurious, and then has refused to take part in further discussion when asked by students, faculty, or alumni. This pattern has been occurring since at least 2013, when President Drew Faust published her initial statement on divestment. For many members of the Harvard community, this method of determining policy, especially impactful policy, and even more especially policy that affects ultimately all members of the Harvard community, is objectionable, separately from or additionally to what, exactly, that policy is chosen to be. For some, the Harvard Corporation's method, which is nontransparent, doesn't utilize demonstrable evidence, and is evasive of debate, is particularly objectionable because it seems to conflict with Harvard's motto and professed institutional ethos of "Veritas" (Latin for "Truth").

Let's now consider the arguments offered by members of the Harvard Corporation. At various points in time, they have included:

Harvard is not sufficiently influential for its divestment to be impactful.

• Fossil fuel divestment, itself, cannot lead to impactful outcomes.

• Divesting from fossil fuel companies might be impactful; however, because Harvard as an institution must take care not to influence society in any particular way, divestment cannot be considered.

• Divesting from fossil fuel companies would not be financially feasible.

• Removing investments from fossil fuel companies would not be fair to those companies, because fossil fuel companies are major developers of low-carbon energy sources.

• By instead retaining stock and acting as an activist shareholder, Harvard will convince fossil fuel companies to become sustainable energy companies.

• Maintaining investments in fossil fuels will help to maintain good relationships with fossil fuel companies, who might then collaborate with Harvard on research projects.

• Because Harvard teaches and does research on climate change, it is "paying its dues" and should be able to invest in fossil fuel companies freely.

• If Harvard divests from fossil fuel companies, it might lose its non-profit status.

• Climate change does not have the moral clarity to justify "policies of principle".

• Because we use fossil fuels unavoidably in daily life, we must choose to invest in them in order to avoid taking an action that might appear hypocritical. Similarly, we must avoid taking actions that might appear hypocritical, even if that means we must invest in fossil fuels, harmful as they are.

• Divestment from fossil fuels would lead to calls to divest from other industries, the sugar industry as a particular example.

• Even if Harvard does not divest from fossil fuel companies, openly discussing that possibility would put uncomfortable media attention on Harvard.

Many members of the Harvard community find these arguments lacking for a number of reasons. Some of these arguments appear to be contradicted by available bodies of evidence. Some appear not to be based on evidence at all. Some appear to be based on logical non sequiturs. And some arguments appear to contradict each other. When these shortcomings have been pointed out to the Harvard Corporation, its response has often been to ignore the criticism or to state that reasonable people can disagree, an accurate observation but one that does not address any of the criticisms made of its arguments.

The large number of arguments given by the Harvard Corporation, along with their various shortcomings, has given the impression that the Harvard Corporation is using a "quantity over quality" strategy to deflect criticism of its fossil fuel investment policy, as opposed to developing a coherent justification for its policy. Such a strategy is bound to be objectionable in an academic community that values intellectual rigor and open discussion. Members of the Harvard community, including faculty, have voiced their objection to it. Some members of the Harvard community object to it sufficiently strongly to engage in disruptive forms of protest against the Harvard Corporation.

Even if a person is reluctant to engage in disruptive forms of protest in general, the Harvard Corporation's method of deciding and defending its fossil fuel investment policy encourages such protests, because the Harvard Corporation's method is unresponsive to attempts from the Harvard community at debate and reasoned persuasion. Examples include the Harvard Corporation's refusal to participate in public discussions or on-the-record meetings on divestment, its lack of establishing one or more working groups to investigate fossil fuel divestment and make the resultant findings available to the Harvard community, and its refusal to respond to specific criticisms of its arguments for its fossil fuel investment policy. Indeed, it is ironic that the Harvard administration, responding to February's student sit-in of the President's office, objected to the protest by saying it "cross[ed] the line from persuasion to disrespectful coercive interference with the activities of others." Among the parts of the Harvard community most prominent thus far in discussing fossil fuel divestment - students, faculty, alumni, and the Corporation - it is uniquely the Corporation that consistently refuses to engage in reasoned persuasion. As a result, disruptive forms of protest are one of the only ways in which members of the Harvard community can engage the Harvard Corporation on the topic of its fossil fuel investment policy.

The final factor contributing to the escalation of climate-change-related protests is outside of the Harvard Corporation's control, and that is the escalating and disruptive nature of climate change, itself. For example, the United States is currently experiencing at least two weather-related disasters that have been linked to climate change: the California drought, which cost $2 billion in 2014, and the heavy snowfall in the northeastern states, which has also incurred significant costs. In the Philippines, where I work on climate adaptation strategies, global warming from global fossil fuel use is predicted to make the dry seasons drier and the wet seasons wetter, increasing the dangers from droughts and floods, which cause economic hardship, entrap people in poverty or kill them, and destroy communities. Because these dangers, and the serious harms that result from them, are ultimately made worse by fossil fuel use, the Harvard Corporation's policy of profit being its only consideration when investing in fossil fuels strikes many as a policy that is in bad taste and sets an irresponsible example for others. Moreover, because various lines of reasoning suggest that a change in Harvard's fossil fuel investment policy could have ultimate effects that could accelerate an economic transition away from fossil fuels, the Harvard Corporation's refusal to change its fossil fuel investment policy strikes some as an action that ultimately contributes to the dangers and harms resulting from climate change, including death and poverty entrapment. If the Harvard Corporation is indeed contributing by choice to disruptions as severe as death and poverty entrapment through its investment policy, then for members of the Harvard community to disrupt the operations of the Harvard Corporation through nonviolent means, such as through a sit-in, seems not only justified but a relatively mild course of action.

The Harvard Corporation's fossil fuel investment policy, itself, and the Harvard Corporation's method of deciding upon that policy and defending it are sufficiently objectionable for many in the Harvard community to engage in disruptive forms of protest against the Harvard Corporation. And the escalating dangers and harms of climate change mean that the longer the Harvard Corporation refuses to change, the more objectionable its actions will become. The Harvard Corporation might change its fossil fuel investment policy only when the disruption it faces from its own community becomes greater than its fear of changing. It's up to the Harvard community to determine how quickly that happens.

For the Harvard Corporation, strange weather might not be the only "new normal" brought about by climate change.