As those who have followed this blog know, I have occasionally used my own alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield Minnesota, as an example of an institution of higher learning that does not yet “get it” with respect to the latest requirements for combating the relentless advance of climate change (see my previous post if you need to be reminded of the scientific basis of this). One of those requirements is to completely eliminate the use of fossil fuels for energy production immediately, if possible, and at least within the next couple of decades. For that purpose, I have encouraged the President of St. Olaf and its investments advisor on its board of regents to divest St. Olaf’s substantial endowment funds from fossil-fuel-related industries. I think I can already see where my efforts are going in the near future at St. Olaf – most likely nowhere. Therefore, I was struck by an account of a recent physics graduate of Harvard University named Ben Franta concerning his efforts to encourage Harvard to divest itself from fossil fuels. Many of his thoughts concerning what has happened at Harvard mimic what I suspect will happen at St. Olaf. The forces at work are the same. Therefore in the remainder of this post, I will provide some of Dr. Frana’s comments and thoughts. His entire article can be seen at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2016/jun/29/after-6-years-of-working-on-climate-at-harvard-i-implore-it-to-show-the-courage-to-divest Also note that a previous letter Ben Franta wrote to Harvard’s President is shown in the first comment at the end of this post.
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 the obstructionism 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 want to 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?
At a research staff meeting at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, my colleagues and I were instructed by our research director not to speak to journalists who inquire about our funding from the fossil fuel industry. At this moment in history, doesn’t the public deserve to know?
And perhaps the atmosphere of censorship is best summarized by a senior professor in environmental economics who told me that he was willing to discuss any topic under the sun (even “the ballet”)—with the single exception of fossil fuel divestment. I love ballet, too, but don’t we owe the next generation some—any—duty of care? Why is it that reducing emissions is blasé, but reducing investments is taboo?
The need to change
The crucial thing I’ve learned from working on climate at Harvard is that when it comes to climate change, we—even those who profess to care—are not doing everything we can—far from it. While people die around the world, those with the privilege of choice confuse comfort with necessity in order to justify inaction when it serves them. This is our central cowardice, from individuals to institutions. And at Harvard, it has assumed forms of absurdist logic and suppressed discussion.
Divestment—though central to fixing climate change conceptually and perhaps practically—is one issue of many. Yet it has revealed the tip of an iceberg, demonstrating that words of concern on climate only go so far—that when educated and privileged institutions like Harvard are asked to make a sacrifice or take a risk, they too cower behind any rationalization they can find for the status quo—one that loads risk onto the next generation and especially the poor. This indicates that the struggle to fix climate change is not simply partisan but is a deeper test of who we are; it is to be found within even our most enlightened institutions—and within ourselves.
In a sense, there is an absurd irony—a real-life satire—to Harvard’s insistence on investing in a product that will, through sea level rise, ultimately destroy much of its campus, as well as the proud and historic city of Boston. In our enlightened age, our best minds apply themselves mightily—debating the differences between fossil fuels and sugar and academic calendars—simply to achieve mismanagement. If today’s youth wish to save themselves, they will have to rebel against both the powerful and the respectable.
Ultimately, in the history of climate change, Harvard and its kind—privileged, insulated, and foolishly clever—may not matter other than to embody a cautionary tale. But insofar as Harvard does matter, I implore it to change. It can align itself with the Paris agreement instead of defying it. It can accept difficult discussions instead of suppressing them. It can face climate change with the directness and sobriety—the courage—the world dearly needs. Yet it may choose not to. Either way, we can bear witness. And either way, today’s youth must keep fighting to save their generation from the last.
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. If there are reasons why the present and future behavior of St. Olaf College will differ from that displayed so far by Harvard, I have not yet seen any evidence of that. Thus, Dr. Franta’s criticisms of Harvard would seem to apply directly to St. Olaf College as well.