The university’s international reputation and the sheer size of its endowment, which in the most recent report was valued at $40.9 billion, ensure that any decision by Harvard will be closely watched.
“We’re trying to build momentum both within the university and a wider movement,” said English Department chairman Nicholas Watson, who moved the resolution written by a group of professors. It began by asking the Harvard Corp. to direct the Harvard Management Co. to withdraw from investments in companies that “explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels,” and from firms that “provide direct support” for such ventures.
Because the university continues to invest in fossil fuel companies, it has been cited as an example by opponents of divestment, Watson said. “We need to step sharply out of being an example of inaction,” he said.
On Tuesday, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow told the faculty he would bring the resolution to the Harvard Corp. and report back. The faculty vote was first reported by the Harvard Crimson.
Harvard’s climate action plan, which commits to being fossil-fuel-free by 2050, underscores the university’s recognition of the need to end reliance on fossil fuels, Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said Wednesday. The university agrees the global challenge is urgent but has advocated that the school confront it through research, education and means other than divestment. Millions of dollars have been directed to faculty, student and staff efforts, including development of alternative energy sources.
In September, Bacow addressed calls for divestment in Harvard Magazine, writing that “while I, like my predecessors, believe that engaging with industry to confront the challenge of climate change is ultimately a sounder and more effective approach for our university, I respect the views of those who think otherwise. We may differ on means. But I believe we seek the same ends — a decarbonized future in which life on Earth can flourish for ages to come.”
Pressure has been building for years. In November, hundreds of protesters demanding action on climate change swarmed the field during halftime of the annual Harvard-Yale football game, prompting arrests and national attention.
In 2014, a group called Harvard Faculty for Divestment asked university leaders to consider the environmental and human consequences of fossil fuel dependence. A petition is now signed by more than 560 faculty members.
In recent months, professors devoted hours to the issue at faculty meetings, and a white paper written by some faculty members called for divestment and other steps, including dramatically reducing air travel and eliminating single-use plastics on campus. “Harvard must treat the climate crisis as the world-historical catastrophe it is,” they wrote. “Up to now, Harvard has primarily approached the crisis from a mainstream, business-as-usual, incrementalist approach. As the wealthiest university in the world, Harvard should take a much more ambitious ethical lead.”
While the original resolution addressed the supply of fossil fuels, an amendment also addressed demand.
James Engell, a professor of English and comparative literature, said, “As Harvard reduces its own use of fossil fuels according to its climate action plan, it’s fitting that its portfolio decarbonize.”
Stephen A. Marglin, a professor of economics, said decarbonizing means choosing investments that will have a smaller adverse impact on the climate. The faculty’s goal is to “have the investment managers look at more than just the people producing fossil fuels, but also the people like us who are using them and the companies that are providing goods and services that use a lot of fossil fuels — and hopefully encouraging those companies to take action to substitute renewable energy forms,” he said.
Marglin said the volume of support for the resolution carries weight. While university leaders have said they don’t want to politicize the portfolio, he said, “that’s a much harder position to maintain now.”
Here is the full text of the resolution:
“That the Corporation should instruct the Harvard Management Company to withdraw from, and henceforth not pursue, investments in companies that explore for or develop further reserves of fossil fuels, or in companies that provide direct support for such exploration and development; over a reasonable period of time, extend those instructions to advisers of investment vehicles used by Harvard’s endowment, including commingled funds where Harvard is not the sole investor; and ensure that any adviser who may be unwilling or unable to comply is replaced by one who is willing to carry out these instructions; and that the Corporation and HMC subject all endowment investments to a system of decarbonization with the goal of achieving internationally agreed standards of emission reduction commensurate with IPCC reports.”