Harvard Commencement,” Ian Lamont

April 22, 2020; Harvard Crimson and Boston Globe

As the nation, still under pandemic shutdown, “celebrated” the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Harvard University, the nation’s oldest university and the university with the country’s largest endowment, announced on April 21st that it “planned to move its $41 billion endowment to a net-zero investment in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.”

In a masterstroke of understatement, Deirdre Fernandes of the Boston Globe observes, “The slow move toward a more environmentally friendly investment policy is likely to disappoint those who had pushed for a swift withdrawal of investments in oil and gas companies.”

Fernandes adds that Harvard officials stressed that “the new policy was not a divestment in fossil fuel companies but an increased commitment to investing in sustainability efforts and looking at the carbon impact of funds across the endowment.”

Apparently, the trustees of Harvard are unaware that the United Nations says we have until 2030 “to stop irreversible damage from climate change.” But perhaps Harvard’s leadership thought that when the United Nations said “2030,” it meant “30 years.” There is, apparently, in Harvard’s view plenty of time for a stepwise, gradual approach to saving the planet.

Yesterday, in a letter to Harvard’s arts and science faculty, issued in response to a 179–20 faculty vote in favor of divestment this past February, Harvard president Lawrence Bacow wrote:

We appreciate that advocates for divestment from fossil fuel companies may not be satisfied with this approach, but we believe that divestment paints with too broad a brush. We cannot risk alienating and demonizing possible partners, some of which have committed to transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy.

Bacow adds that in Harvard’s view, achieving carbon emissions reduction requires a strategy of engagement and cooperation with fossil fuel companies, due to our nation’s “dependence on their products for the foreseeable future, the nature of the assets under their control, and the special knowledge and expertise they possess.”

In the Harvard Crimson, Ellen Burstein and Michelle Kurilla note that the activist group Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, while glad to see Harvard adopt a 30-year goal of reaching net-zero emissions, nonetheless expressed strong disappointment with the university’s response.

“A good-faith effort to reach carbon neutrality would have acknowledged that divestment is the logical first step,” the group writes. “Instead, by not including divestment as one of its commitments today, Harvard is continuing to provide social and economic capital to the forces standing in the way of a decarbonized future. As the world burns, Harvard continues to defend the arsonists.”—Steve Dubb