How student activists pushed Harvard to divest from fossil fuels

Harvard College President Larry Bacow could have been unable to bring himself to use the word itself. However when his e mail landed within the inboxes of Harvard college students final month, its message couldn’t have been clearer: The college was eventually divesting—slicing oil, gasoline, and coal from the funding portfolio of its $53 billion endowment. For a planet rising hotter by the day, the announcement got here as a historic victory. And it additionally got here as a historic victory for a motion whose activism, after years of campaigning, protesting, and organizing, had lastly compelled the hand of the world’s richest college.

The last decade-old divestment motion has a quite simple demand: Endowments, pensions funds, and different funding automobiles should cease funding the local weather disaster. The time for change is working out, and it’s fossil gasoline firms’ continued commitments to their business model which might be standing in the way in which of a simply and steady future. However whereas most of the individuals working these investments are keen on paying lip service to the necessity for local weather motion, these identical persons are placing billions upon billions of the cash they management behind the fossil gasoline trade’s continued success. The motion to push for fossil gasoline divestment calls out this contradiction.

After I first arrived at Harvard within the fall of 2019, I used to be amazed and honored to be a part of a neighborhood with such means to create a greater world. However the extra I discovered concerning the college’s inaction on local weather, the extra heartbroken I used to be to see that for all its potential the establishment was actively betting towards my era with its investments. And it was on this context that, quickly after my freshman yr started, I obtained concerned with the continued fossil gasoline divestment effort on campus.


World wide, the motion has been a hit: From Oxford to the College of California, from the New York state pension fund to the Rockefeller philanthropies, monetary gamers price trillions have more and more come to the conclusion that divestment is important. And it’s working. As even the fossil gasoline trade admitted begrudgingly, activists’ stress was posing actual challenges to its means to entry capital and keep social legitimacy.

However at Harvard, the administration put out press launch after press launch praising oil and gasoline firms’ local weather insurance policies. It refused to even meet with students, asserted that it was “not the case” that the fossil fuel companies have been blocking local weather motion, and even inspired college students to write “thank-you letters” to “good” fossil fuel companies. Because the fossil gasoline trade launched campaigns to smear and discredit Harvard research and faculty, the college stood by its continued embrace of oil, gasoline, and coal. Because the trade collapsed in worth, turning into one of many worst-performing market sectors of the past decade (a long-term pattern that even the current bull market has been unable to meaningfully alter), the college continued swearing by the infallibility of its greater than $800 million in fossil fuel holdings.

Till, that’s, earlier this month. “Given the necessity to decarbonize the economic system and our duty as fiduciaries to make long-term funding selections that assist our instructing and analysis mission,” Bacow wrote, “we don’t imagine such investments are prudent.” Shifting ahead, Harvard would keep away from future direct and oblique fossil gasoline investments whereas unwinding present ones—precisely what that they had sworn for a decade would by no means occur.

So what did it take to win? Listed below are some key methods that college students, college, and alumni concerned within the marketing campaign used within the push for Harvard to divest.


For these in energy, the usual playbook for coping with activism is simply ready for it to go away. Sadly, the local weather disaster has different plans. The duty of student activists, then, was constructing a motion that might stand the check of time, and thus rise to the problem that Harvard itself was unwilling to confront.

It’s simple for an establishment to ignore a single activist (they’ll graduate in just a few years anyway), nevertheless it’s tougher to ignore a motion. For Harvard college students, this took the type of a dedication to robust conversations, cautious coalition constructing, intentional bridging of divides, and plenty of a debate on sustainable motion construction and operations (a marketing campaign that labored laborious to be leaderless, because the group discovered over time, was the kind of motion most ready to show resilient at the same time as people got here and left).


The end result was that divestment grew to become a rallying cry not simply of anybody particular person, however of a neighborhood: The mixed stress of student protests garnering international headlines, college calling for change by supermajority votes, alumni resoundingly electing pro-divestment candidates to governing board positions, and extra ultimately proved an excessive amount of for Harvard to resist.


Because the years dragged on, the hole between Harvard and its friends was rising by the day, with Harvard persevering with to (if something) leave money on the table by refusing to divest. This made efforts to maintain the college accountable within the courtroom of public opinion all of the extra impactful.

Clearly, $42 billion should buy a number of energy. However in the end, considered one of Harvard’s weakest spots was its grip over the general public narrative. So whether or not it was taking over the college with memes and art or with op-eds, working with journalists on front-page headlines, or staging guerilla digital campaigns, the narrative entrance proved one the place college students may genuinely go toe-to-toe with an establishment of Harvard’s may. Younger individuals, in any case, know completely nicely what false guarantees, misdirection, and inaction seem like when it comes to local weather. No quantity of PR spin may change the truth that as long as Harvard tied itself to the forces inflicting the local weather disaster, it was excluding itself from being a part of the story about options.


Harvard wasn’t going to let traditional efforts at persuasion go anywhere. The dangers this stubbornness posed—to individuals, to the establishment, to the planet—made it all of the extra vital to discover new methods to search change.

If there was a single factor that pushed Harvard over the sting, it was the grievance to the Massachusetts legal professional normal that college students, college, alumni, and scientists collectively filed final semester, asserting that Harvard’s investments aren’t just immoral but also illegal. The long-term financial risk confronted by the trade and harm it poses to Harvard’s charitable functions, the grievance argued, meant that by refusing to divest, Harvard was performing negligently. It’s each a declare that made all of the distinction at Harvard (in an indication of the grievance’s influence, the college all but quoted its logic in its divestment announcement) and one seemingly to resonate far past this one case (the identical authorized arguments apply to nearly every other endowment, too). And it’s simply considered one of many examples of the kind of inventive, novel techniques that come into play when conventional dialogue and discourse fail.


For the world of finance, it’s that this can be a second of reckoning. Attempting to revenue from this local weather chaos is hardly the work of a accountable actor. Nor, in the long term, is it particularly good business. If social duty is to be greater than only a buzzword in finance, then finance wants to begin really listening to society.

For universities and different establishments of energy, it’s that possibly it’s wholesome to hear what activists have to say. We wish the identical issues, in any case—a greater future for everybody. Had Harvard divested again when the calls started, it will seemingly have prevented the stigma of trailing its friends (Cambridge, Brown, Cornell, and Columbia all beat it to the punch) and, not to point out, would almost certainly have more money.

And for student activists, it’s that that is no time to quit. Successful divestment at Harvard took a 10-year marketing campaign. It was laborious at instances to think about that the college would ever change. However ultimately, the powers that be have been moved. Within the weeks since, everybody from the country’s largest university system to one of the biggest pension funds on this planet has adopted swimsuit. It’s clearer than ever that there’s by no means been a extra impactful second wherein to arrange. In spite of everything, we’ve a future to win.

Connor Chung is a school student and organizer with the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard marketing campaign, which after a decade-long effort not too long ago gained a historic divestment dedication from the college.