The Harvard Corporation and Fossil Fuel Divestment

10/23/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Dec 23, 2013

In his Annual Message to Congress December 1, 1862, discussing slavery, Abraham Lincoln remarked, "Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history." Lincoln floated a plan to end slavery over 37 years, in part through colonization of Africa.

The Harvard Corporation has a strong presumption against divestment, as it should. Otherwise, every cause and political debate would exert leverage over investments of an institution that rightly tries to avoid political stances, except, perhaps, on matters such as affirmative action.

But climate change caused by human activity has been politicized only in order to deny it. Politicizing it does not make it a political issue. Slavery was politicized, as segregation was, and apartheid. In a genuine political issue, at least two points of view hold lasting merit, and deliberation and debate can result in compromise.

The fact of climate change caused by human beings is, in that sense, emphatically not political. It is rather an issue of science, humanity, and morality. The science is clear, just ask any reputable scientist, including many at Harvard. Our actions will supply the humanity and morality -- or lack of those qualities.

One can say that the question of what to do about climate change is a political issue. Fair enough. Then investing in companies that deny climate science and contribute to accelerating climate change certainly is an action every bit as much as not investing in them is. Even big tobacco companies have stopped making claims that smoking is not addictive and doesn't cause health problems. Remember the time when their highly paid executives stood before Congress and swore to lies, and made campaign contributions?

Harvard no longer invests in tobacco companies. "In 1990 the University completed sales of its stock in a number of companies in the tobacco industry and adopted a policy prohibiting the future purchase of stock in companies producing significant quantities of cigarettes or other tobacco products. These actions followed extensive consideration by both of Harvard's Committees on Shareholder Responsibility of the issues associated with direct investment in the tobacco industry." That battle took at least two years to win. It was the right battle.

Those who believed that the University should not divest its tobacco holdings could at least make the (weak) argument that smokers have some choice. But that is not the case with those affected by climate change -- there is no choice, no place to escape, no "climate-change free zone."

Moreover, if human-caused climate change hurt a specific group of people more than it hurt others, if its effects targeted heavily a group already experiencing a history of discrimination and disadvantage -- say, women, Jews, people of color -- who then doubts that the decision of the Corporation would be different?

Yet, this is precisely what human-caused climate change does. The people who have been suffering and who will continue to suffer the most disruption, the greatest loss (including loss of life), and the most severe economic privation from climate change are the poor. It doesn't matter whether it is the poor living in coastal areas of the United States from Alaska (where fishing villages have washed into the sea) to New Orleans to Florida, the poor trying to wring grain out of the Sahel, or the poor in coastal areas of Bangladesh and India, or on island nations that will disappear. The poor are suffering, and will suffer, much more. One must suppose that the poor are not worth much investment consideration. They have little or no money to influence politics, or to contribute to universities.

In our often well-meaning yet bureaucratic world of powerful interests, the poor are never classified as an "underrepresented minority." They almost never serve on big corporate boards (unless it's a charity, even then it's rare). While occasionally appearing for university honorary degrees -- remember Mother Teresa? -- the poor don't serve as university trustees or governing fellows. Imagine, actually imagine, if the poor were defined as an underrepresented minority.

Should the University sell its fossil fuel stock in a planned manner? That course is justified. It was done more than 20 years ago with tobacco companies. To some people such a divestment might seem unwise, especially since as a society we need to use fossil fuels for energy for a few decades. However, we must reduce that reliance, and the University must reduce its holdings. At the very least it should taper them down in a planned manner that not only anticipates but that is in advance of the reduction in use of fossil fuels necessary over the next two decades if we are to avoid an altered climate in which much of life on Earth is adversely affected, a climate in which the poor will lose, by far, the most.

The fossil fuel companies are decent investments only under two assumptions: first, the oil and gas and coal they own in the ground shall be sold and burned; second, they shall continue to find more oil and gas and coal and shall sell that to be burned, too. Any investor in them must want this to happen, and any investor is putting up money to make this happen with all deliberate speed.

The new Harvard vice-president for sustainable investing should sit down with fossil fuel executives to see what they really think (if they agree to talk with her), much as Harvard held discussions with tobacco companies prior to disinvesting in them. But the indications aren't good. BP stopped calling itself "Beyond Petroleum" several years ago, before they and associated contractors spilled all that petroleum into the Gulf. The oil companies aren't exactly diversifying at breakneck speed. They're looking for more oil, more tar sands. And many fossil fuel companies spend millions on disinformation and science denial, millions that they get from investors as well as from customers.

Lincoln's plan of late 1862 was not bold enough. History moved quickly, but so did the president. Within one month he caught up, and on the first day of the New Year 1863 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. As he had noted earlier, "We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility." Have you visited Memorial Hall at Harvard and looked at the names on the walls, the dead who died to preserve the Union and to end slavery? Sometimes one must decide to act in every way possible, or live with the insidious consequences of business as usual.

Since 1978 James Engell has taught at Harvard, chairing the Department of English from 2004 to 2010. He serves as a faculty associate of the Harvard University Center for the Environment and began his studies leaning toward science. He has taught environmental seminars at the National Humanities Center and for a consortium of nine North American and Asian Universities.