How Dirty Money Compromises Elite Institutions in the Climate Crisis

Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

Elite universities like Harvard claim to be fighting climate change, yet maintain deep financial ties to the fossil fuel

The Nation - September 19, 2019

When I first met President Lawrence Bacow in one of his office hours sessions last fall to discuss divesting Harvard’s nearly $40 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry, his message was clear: For now, the world is powered by fossil fuels, and idealistic kids can’t change that.

He pointed to the lightbulb above our heads. Right now, he told us, we need fossil fuels for energy and electricity, which heats our classrooms and keeps our lights on. As he spoke, I heard the passionate and informed call of my peers, professors, and alumni reduced to a gross oversimplification.

It does not take an expert—as Greta Thunberg shows, it can take only a clear-eyed teenager—to know that with millions facing climate-induced displacement by 2050 and the world on the verge of the sixth mass extinction, we are in an emergency situation. Our call to action is one informed by this stark ecological reality and represents a deliberate strategy to confront it; yet Harvard ignores us. It is long past time for our universities to come on board.

In fact, the ignorance can seem willful. Elite universities like Harvard claim to be leaders in fighting climate change, yet maintain deep financial ties to the fossil fuel industry. No amount of research or on-campus energy efficiency can mitigate the damage done by investing in the continued existence of the companies driving the climate crisis and the global injustices it perpetuates. At the most basic level, serious climate action means ending investments in the system of extraction and exploitation that these companies’ model of business represents. Yet even before divesting, universities must acknowledge the dollars they are putting into dirty energy.

So long as they keep their money in the dark, our most privileged universities evade public accountability for investment practices that are morally unjustifiable and contradictory to their educational missions. Currently, 99 percent of Harvard’s endowment remains hidden from the public. We cannot know whether all or none of that 99 percent is invested in the fossil fuel industry. But we do know that in 2015, Harvard invested tens of millions in fossil fuels, only announcing a “pause” of direct investments after seven Harvard students filed a lawsuit enjoining their holdings. And according to Colin Butterfield, head of natural resources at the Harvard Management Company, Harvard still invests in fossil fuel companies indirectly through outside funds. Scaled up, that means hundreds of millions of Harvard’s dollars could be propping up the fossil fuel industry.

Meanwhile, our allies at GRAIN, a nonprofit supporting small farmers and community-based food systems, have uncovered that Harvard has holdings in nearly 300,000 hectares of farmland in the Brazilian Cerrado. Such holdings support the kind of industrial agricultural businesses responsible for the deforestation in the Amazon and the displacement of indigenous communities. The university’s refusal to cease such investments is deeply disturbing. Not only is Harvard failing to lead on the environment and human rights; it is an active participant in their systemic degradation. ...
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