Photograph by istock
A group of Harvard faculty members calling for the University to divest endowment resources from fossil-fuel companies has marked two developments in their campaign during the past weeks: a private conversation with President Drew Faust and the Harvard Corporation’s senior fellow, William F. Lee; and an open forum on the science and economics of divestment, the first public event the group has held since forming last spring.
Harvard Faculty for Divestment (HFD), which first publicly called for the University to divest in an open letter dated April 10, has engaged in a slow-moving, public e-mail exchange with the administration since then. Writing on July 10, Lee reiterated Harvard’s commitment to combatting climate change without divesting endowment funds from companies that produce fossil fuel. HFD responded with a rebuttal in its own e-mail of September 9, and a call for both “individual conversations” and “an open and public forum” (see “Divestment Discussions,” November-December 2014, page 35).
On October 17, the group achieved the first of those goals with a private, hour-long conversation with Faust and Lee. Eight of HFD’s unofficial leaders presented what the group’s release called the “scientific, moral, economic, and political arguments for divestment,” and “both sides had the opportunity to articulate their stance,” reported James Recht, clinical associate professor of psychiatry, in an interview after the meeting. “It was definitely a very civil meeting and it gave us confidence, for one thing, that the possibility of finding ways to work collaboratively exist….We are hoping and are confident that that meeting was not just a one-off.”
Faust and Lee offered a similar perspective. “Bill Lee and I enjoyed the opportunity to have another fruitful conversation Friday [October 17] with faculty members who believe Harvard should divest from fossil fuels,” the president said in a statement. “Our discussion reminded me again that we share the same goal—preserving the environment by reducing the release of carbon into our atmosphere—and that we only differ on how that is best accomplished. I expect that we all will continue to express our points of view [on] how we as a community can have the most positive effect on our planet.”
A week later, HFD leaders presented their arguments to fellow faculty members, students, and alumni in the group’s first public event, held in Fong Auditorium on a Sunday afternoon. The two-hour forum, which featured three faculty presentations, attracted about 50 audience members—most of them already supporters of the campaign. “I’m profoundly proud of the students at this university. I haven’t seen a reaction against the system of this intensity since the Vietnam War,” Weld professor of atmospheric chemistry James G. Anderson said in his opening remarks. “And I’m one of the 15 faculty who are attempting to become pink-slipped over our position in this as well.”
Anderson offered a scientific primer on how we’ve begun to reach “inevitable” and “irreversible” changes in climate, presenting evidence of how melting polar icecaps and other changes in energy flow within the climate system will have consequences far beyond what scientists thought would happen even five years ago. To drive the point home, he showed a map of what Boston and Cambridge would look like after a three-meter sea-level rise, a level that would reflect ice melt of 40 percent of the Greenland ice sheet. “We might as well pick on ourselves,” he said. Much of Allston would be underwater at one meter of rise, and three meters would bring “a whole new connotation to the word River House.”
Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell followed Anderson; he discussed various proposals for “bending the curve” of carbon-dioxide emissions downward. Divestment, he argued, would build up the political pressure to change laws, increase subsidies for renewable energy and other technology, and even alter consumer habits. The known reserves of fossil fuel, if burned, “would be enough to fry the planet,” Engell said. “So the question is: Do you want to be part of a bet that such business is good business—and I mean good in every sense of the word? I would say I don’t think we do.”
Barker professor of economics Stephen A. Marglin closed the event with a presentation focused specifically on the arguments for divestment. He explained his belief that the University’s other efforts, including greening the campus and supporting climate research, are important but insufficient. “[Politicians] respond to pressure. We need to build political will. That’s what’s missing right now. And that’s what divestment will contribute,” he said. “Divestment is a small part of a big problem, but it’s what we can do here.”
Global Climate Change