Robert Stavins, the Albert Pratt Professor of Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and was a lead author on the third, fourth and fifth assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Updated August 10, 2015, 10:52 AM
Students are right to be concerned about climate change, but the focus of the divestment movement is fundamentally misguided. Students, faculty and staff can be effective by acting in ways that will make a real difference, but the symbolic action of divestment — and the fight to convince universities to do so — has opportunity costs: It diverts us from focusing on what really matters.
Divestment doesn’t affect the ability of fossil fuel companies to raise capital: For each institution that divests, there are other investors that take its place. As long as the world still continues to rely on fossil fuels, and consumes them at current rates, the companies that supply them will have a ready market for their products.
Don’t exacerbate the ideological divide and political polarization that has paralyzed Washington on climate change.
What really matters for addressing climate change is enlightened public policy at the international, national and sub-national levels. In particular, it will take serious, economy-wide, carbon-pricing regimes – either carbon taxes or cap-and-trade systems – to bring about meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
At Harvard, where I teach, the student leaders of the divestment movement themselves acknowledge that divestment would not have a financial impact on fossil fuel companies. For them, divestment is a “moral strategy.” This, to me, presents another problem.
Pitching divestment as a moral crusade will play into and exacerbate the ideological divide and political polarization that has paralyzed Washington on climate change (and other issues), diminishing even further the prospects for effective climate policy in the United States. Whatever moral statement divestment might make is not worth risking further disintegration of the climate-policy process.
Global Climate Change