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After 6 years of working on climate at Harvard, I implore it to show the courage to divest

Posted on 29 June 2016 by Guest Author

One morning in the summer of 2014, I found myself in the city of Tacloban in the Philippines. The city and surrounding area had been devastated less than a year earlier by Super Typhoon Yolanda. Thousands had been killed; bodies were found for months afterwards. 

As part of an international research collaboration, I was interviewing government officials and others throughout the Philippines to assess how to improve preparedness for and response to climate-related disasters. I had already interviewed survivors in cities and villages across the country about the impacts of extreme weather. (And, incidentally, a few weeks later, I would contract dengue and chikungunya—two mosquito-borne diseases aided by climate changein their ongoing spread.) With my prior experience, I thought I was prepared for what I would hear that morning, but I wasn’t.

As I prepared for the day’s interviews, I spoke with a man of about fifty who was helping us to navigate. He described the impact of the storm, the thousands of bodies lying about, his attempts to somehow help despite the overwhelming magnitude of the destruction and death. His own son had gone missing, but there was no time to search; the need for attention to those around him was too immediate and great. The destruction’s scale made the attempted cleanup a kind of futile, obligatory madness—but one that seemed necessary by the standards of human decency. 

The madness, the decency, the inhuman work of cleaning a mountain of death and sadness continued for weeks, until someone informed him that they had found his son. He was miles away, his body in a mangrove patch, decomposing. The father collected his son’s remains, like so many others did, and then returned to the never-ending work. There was too much to do.

And as the father spoke to me, some half a year later, there was still too much to do. The coastline had been reoccupied with shanties. Another typhoon season was coming. The father looked at me, and I could see his eyes. I cannot forget what I saw: trauma, grief, fear…all unprocessed, all repressed and pushed aside for months because there was no time to grieve, no time to come to peace, because there was too much to do; too much to do just to survive, just to live.

A theatre of the absurd

The next spring, I was in Massachusetts, on Harvard’s campus. People were awakening to the dangers of climate change. Massive demonstrations were occurring on campus to protest Harvard’s considerable investments in the fossil fuel sector (which constituted one-third of Harvard’s disclosed investments at the end of 2014). Student and alumni protestors had set up camp around the central administrative building. To avoid the protestors, the administration had moved operations to Loeb House, a small mansion on campus, which was surrounded by barricades and police to prevent protestors from approaching.

The former Harvard professor Cornel West whipped up the crowd with a characteristically fiery speech and led a march to Loeb House to deliver a letter to the administration. Hundreds, including myself, participated. As we approached, I could see administrative staff peering out at us past the velvet curtains.

When we got to the barricades, the police informed us that no one was in the building. Despite the human-looking figures inside poking their heads above the corners of windows to sneak a peak at the rabble outside, the police insisted the building was empty. I remember feeling confused—to be lied to blatantly is more disorienting than to be lied to subtly—and the crowd began to chant, calling for someone to come outside.

As hundreds stayed and chanted for ten, then twenty minutes—calling to the individuals they could see through the windows—individuals who were looking right back while the police insisted that no one was inside—I thought of the father in the Philippines. He did not choose to be surrounded by death; he did not choose to be tasked with the retrieval of his own son’s remains. He was not afforded even the basic privilege of time and space to grieve. He was afforded no choice but to repress his trauma and continue. And I thought of his son, who did not choose death. And yet in that moment I saw those who did have the luxury of choice, those who live lives of comfort, looking down from the windows of a mansion at a crowd whose request was to deliver a letter for the sake of human decency.

And yet, for the people in that house, to come outside to accept such a letter was below them—while hiding from their own students, and lying boldly to them, was not.

Finally—after it was clear that the protestors would not be leaving—someone did emerge from the empty house, accepting the contentious piece of paper and taking it inside. The protestors wanted Harvard to stand up to powerful interests by moving away from its fossil fuel stakes, yet its management was unwilling to accept a simple piece of paper—an arguably much easier task—without a theatre of the absurd.

It was in that moment that I realized that if our children look back to how we failed them, it will not have been for lack of scientific understanding or even technological prowess; it will have been due, fundamentally, to cowardice. A profound cowardice among those who actually do have a choice in this matter, a cowardice that confuses arrogance with intelligence, pettiness with importance, and, most fatally, comfort with necessity. 

Divestment’s controversy

Essentially all of the climate change controversy at Harvard has revolved around divestment. The idea of reducing investments in fossil fuels as a matter of policy began as an audacious suggestion designed to shock people into seeing the contradiction between our words and our actions on climate. After institutions began adopting the idea, it became a method to call attention to theobstructionism and denial propagated by fossil fuel companies. Institutions that were afraid of making enemies in industry—like Harvard and MIT—were, rather predictably, reluctant to take a public stand. But since the Paris climate agreement in 2015, the idea of divestment has evolved into something much more fundamental and unignorable.

In polite society—at least the kind that self-identifies with science—the Paris agreement is applauded, in essence, universally. Yet the implications of the agreement for investments are beginning to be reckoned with, and they are stark: by the IPCC’s most recent estimate, $100 billion per year needs to be disinvested from the fossil fuel extraction industry for the next twenty years. And when it comes to infrastructure, a recent study has found that no new fossil-fuel-using power plants can be built after next year (unless they are decommissioned prematurely—making them a bad investment). In other words, if we are serious about the Paris agreement, then there needs to be a deliberate shift of investments out of fossil fuels and into clean replacements at this moment. This is, technically speaking, the definition of divestment.

The catch, though, is that this is something that Harvard’s administration has vowed never to do. To analyze why is an exercise in theorizing—it may be due to the logic of economic Darwinism that underlies Harvard’s culture and wealth, a psychology of indignant authoritarianism among Harvard’s governing board, pervasive conflicts of interest (Harvard trustee Ted Wells is currently legal counsel for Exxon Mobil, for example), or nothing more than simple bureaucratic group-think—but regardless of the reason, the fact that the richest private university in the world openly defies the Paris agreement with its investment policies—while praising the agreement with words—is troubling. 

And this brings us to an uncomfortable but unavoidable question: does Harvard actually wantto fix climate change, or does it merely want to look like it wants to fix it? And perhaps more troublingly: do we actually want to fix climate change, or are we just going through the motions to save face, to avoid admitting to ourselves that, deep down, we aren’t who we thought we were, that we actually don’t care that much what happens to our children—or what happens to the world?

Fake it ‘til you make it

What does it look like to pretend to care? Harvard has announced that “green is the new crimson” and, to much fanfare, spends a special $1 million per year on climate research. But in the face of a civilizational crisis—and for an institution whose research spending is on the order of a billion dollars per year already—what is the intended purpose of this much-publicized $1 million? Harvard spends the same to pay its president (more than the president of the US)—and fifty times more just to pay half a dozen of its money managers. Meanwhile, Harvard likely has hundreds of millions—or more—invested in fossil fuels. If we look past the fanfare and see the world’s richest private university spending $1 million per year to address a civilizational crisis, congratulating itself while investing hundreds of times more in the root cause of that crisis, are we supposed to feel reassured? Or can this only be interpreted as the most illuminating kind of satire of all—that is, the kind that is real?

It might be suggested that universities are places of discourse, not action. Yet when confronted with its stake in and connections to the fossil fuel industry, the discourse at Harvard rapidly morphs into non-sequiturs and censorship. Harvard’s president suggested to me that if we were to move investments out of fossil fuels, then we might have to do the same for sugar, because sugar is harmful, too. Is this real? For those dying around the world, for those living in cities or societies that face destruction from climate change, how is this anything other than a modern-day “let them eat cake”?

When faced with calls for divestment, another Harvard trustee suggested that we should instead be thanking oil companies like BP for investing in renewable energy—which is awkward, because there’s not a lot of that going on. At what point does “daddy knows best” become “I think daddy might be losing touch with reality”? Have we arrived?

In court, Harvard has formally argued that students’ desire for reduced investments in fossil fuels is as trivial and arbitrary as the desire for a new academic calendar or different housing options. Again, does Harvard truly believe that the existence of species, the stability of societies, and the lives of the vulnerable around the world are choices on the same level as whether to start classes on a Wednesday or a Thursday? When we play dumb, are we being clever and bluffing—or are we fools telling the truth? Which is more terrifying to the future of human society?

Harvard staff members have told me they are prohibited from discussing the issue of fossil fuel divestment at all—even outside of work. Imagine if staff were prohibited from talking about greenhouse gas reductions. When the future depends on our actions today, why is a university suppressing discussion?

Click here to read the rest

Benjamin Franta has a PhD in applied physics from Harvard University and from 2014—2016 was a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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Comments 1 to 15:

  1. I tink it's kind of rude to not put the guest author's name at top of the article, don't you?

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  2. An irony here is that Oil stocks have lost half their value since that protest.

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  3. Thanks Ben for your action. I agree Harvard policy of forcing "silence" on the issue does not make sense. They should not, and even  cannot in principle, be stripped of their ordinary citizen's rights to protest and express their opinions.

    Even though scientists are supposed to avoid the expression of private opinions in their work, they are not robots but human beings that havwe  compassion to others and feel responsible for their actions. Therefore they are entitled to take actions, especially if policies so absurdly contradict themselves. It's time to create necessary support for such movement in all universities. Like trade union movement in factories, that supports workers' rights, unis are lacking simillar support for their scxientists.

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  4. "if our children look back to how we failed them, it will not have been for lack of scientific understanding or even technological prowess; it will have been due, fundamentally, to cowardice. A profound cowardice among those who actually do have a choice in this matter, a cowardice that confuses arrogance with intelligence, pettiness with importance, and, most fatally, comfort with necessity. "

    Thank you. Very well put.

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  5. The puzzling silence that greets the overwhelming 'now-ness' of climate action reminds me of how the World reacted to the Jewish Holocaust during WWII.  We know.  We KNOW, there is no way history will forgive us for our cowardice.  We just can't seem to believe this heroism is demanded of us now, here in our present lives.  The rude reality presses too harshly upon the well-constructed orderliness of our ordinary lives.  The Great Barrier Reef may die, in some obscure corner of Earth's dark, mystifying ocean.  But the Reef in our Disney-fied 'Dory-minds' lives on and on. It can no more be extinguished than can our Spirits; indeed, do not suggest otherwise with the intrusion of mere reality.  I will sacrifice the World before I sacrifice my spiritual optimism.

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  6. ubrew12@5,

    I upvoted your post because you found the right time and the right context (this thread) to use Holocaust and all-upcasing (coment policy not withstanding in this case I hope mods agree). Thank you. Usually, those who resort to such arguments in their disussion, are losers. You're the winner. End of discussion in both cases.

    I can only second that silence about AGW mitigation is still overwhelming as we speak. E.g. in AUS federal election, to be  held tomorrow. Malcolm Turnball, the ruling party (NLP) leader who is given an edge to win by pundits, has not spoken at once about AGW during his campain, in fact during his entire prime ministership. Despite being  an outspoken proponent of carbon price while he was an opposition leader.

    The Greens are obviously vocal about AGW. So is the opposition party (ALP), but I wonder if they continue doing so if elected tomorrow. How could it be, that all people, once elected to govern, become universally silent? No matter where it be, in state gov or in universities?

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  7. I;m no economist as will be immediately apparent but I fail to see how divestment helps.  Surly you divest by selling your shares to someone else.  If you are a big share holder, this may push the price of your shares down and someone else, potentially gets a bargain.  If you decide simply to burn your shares, then the rest of the shares outstanding go up in value.  Money only goes to the company when they issue their shares.  After that, they are bought and sold by third parties (and can be bought back by the company in some cases) so how does this effect the coal companies.

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  8. William.  You are missing two points.

    First, companies frequently raise additional capital, for example to expand their business.  They do this either by issuing new shares (this is largely the reason you bother to list on an exchange), or issuing debt.  The price of new debt or equity is significantly affected by the current share price.  In the case of raising equity, it is almost entirely set by the share price; in the case of debt it is more complex, but the share price, which signals the overall value of the business is still a very fundamental driver.  So a falling share price can completely undermine this process.

    Secondly, senior executives typically get much or even most of their remuneration either in shares, or in a form linked to the share price.  A falling share price is a disaster for them, and so share price is a huge driver of their behaviour.

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  9. Well I am with William on this one. Divestment might be worthwhile in coal but in oil? Any big oil company really needing to go to market or banks to raise capital? Since oil still pays nice dividends, then if market undervalues, management buys and does very nicely. If you want to hurt oil companies (and do the climate a favour into the bargain), then get off the plane and out of the auto.

    If demand dries, then disinvestment makes good investor sense as well, but until then...

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  10. If you do not want to divest as a university, but make a change, advise/force to change to other renewable, sustainable feedstock. Bio-crudes from fast pyrolisis for example. Sureley a university has the intelligence and research capabilities to provide knowledge on technology and supply chain issues for retrieving the feedstock. 

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  11. Divestment is critical, the alternative is investment. If you or your organisation is a shareholder in a specific business or industry  for which you produce research, then this can be considered a "conflict of interest". If Harvard produces scientific research on Climate Change, and Climate Change is clearly caused by the Oil and Coal industry, then having investments in such an industry could make Harvard hold back, over simplify and more. Divestment says "I refuse to opperate with a conflict of interest", or "Not in our name". Divestment proves you are reading your own publications Harvard, it proves your own papers have merit otherwise you apear to be a joke.

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  12. But oil companies aren't offering shares. Buying existing shares puts no money into fossil fuel extraction. It shows your institution can recognize that the companies will making a profit. If enough people divested to undervalue those shares,  then you just make management buyout profitable. In some industries, divestment would be powerful but I am blowed to see what it achieves in oil. 

    To my mind it is just a feel good option, and bad news if people do this instead of something effective. 

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  13. Divestment isn't a powerful tool, but for those organisations there may be few other tools. But it shouldn't be underestimated either.

    On the basis of 'pure fundamentals' divestment counts for little - someone else will buy them. But markets are seldom 'pure fundamentals'. Because many markets are not about the economics of the businesses traded in the market. They are about the sentiments of the people doing the trading.

    And divestment acts strongly here. 'This stock is being sold because of sentiment' translates into 'Oh my God, sentiment is shifting... time to get out before I get burned by the impacts of other peoples sentiments'.

    Markets aren't rational, they are emotional. And symbolism exists to manipulate emotion.

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  14. We all have the power to implore...

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  15. Divestment. Waste of time. You sell it, someone else buys it.

    BTW How do you "fix" climate change? The climate is constantly changig. Always has and always will. There's nothing there for you to fix. You might as well try and fix a bowl of soup.

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