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

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?

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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.

Posted by Guest Author on Wednesday, 29 June, 2016

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