Posted by: ericgrimsrud | June 29, 2016

Our colleges’ and universities’ cowardice concerning divestments

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 posts in May 2015 and April 2016 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   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.

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 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.



  1. For some background to this post I will include here a letter then Harvard graduate student Ben Franta wrote to the President of Harvard in 2014. It read as follows:

     March 19, 2014

    Benjamin Franta
    Gordon McKay Lab
    9 Oxford St.
    Cambridge, MA 02138

    Dear President Faust,

    I am writing to you today in the hope of generating a public discussion that is based on intellectual honesty and moral seriousness.

    I will be direct in this letter. It does not imply a lack of respect. I believe it is best to work together, and the need for clarity is urgent.

    Last month you and I met to discuss Harvard’s divestment from the fossil fuel business. We disagree on whether or not Harvard should continue to invest in fossil fuel corporations, but I am not concerned by disagreement per se. I am concerned by the possibility that you are not treating this issue with the honesty and seriousness that it deserves. I believe that possibility has troubling implications.

    I wrote to you a month ago with the concerns in this letter. They are still unaddressed. It is important to address them, because they affect many people. I will explain the reasons for my concern.

    To justify the university’s continued funding of the fossil fuel industry, you have provided a list of unsubstantiated beliefs in place of evidence-based arguments, both in your written statement on fossil fuel divestment and in subsequent conversations. Unsubstantiated beliefs will not suffice to protect our children and grandchildren from damages arising from planetary climate change.

    The plan you have put forth as an alternative to divestment—that Harvard, through a strategy of shareholder activism, will induce fossil fuel companies to become clean energy companies—is a proposition that requires evidence to demonstrate its seriousness and feasibility. I am not aware of evidence to suggest that: 1) fossil fuel companies have any interest in becoming clean energy companies anytime soon, if ever; 2) that it is possible for such companies to become clean energy companies while maintaining fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders; 3) that shareholder activism is capable of inducing such fundamental shifts in business strategy; or 4) that Harvard, as an activist shareholder, has such power.

    Your repeated preference of this plan indicates either that you are privy to evidence regarding its feasibility that others are not privy to, that you are naïve regarding the feasibility of this plan or that this plan is proposed cynically. If you do have special information that supports the feasibility of this plan, it should be made public. Without such evidence, there is no reason to believe that this plan is both serious and well informed.

    The same need for evidence applies to your statement that divesting from fossil fuel companies will cause a significant loss of revenue for the University. This may very well be true, but, again, evidence to support that conclusion is needed. Various studies to date have indicated that divestment from fossil fuel companies need not result in significant financial losses. Do these studies not apply to Harvard’s endowment, in full or in part? Are there other losses of revenue that concern you besides investment returns, such as corporate and private donations? Or are your concerns less tangible?

    It is right for you to act as a steward of Harvard’s financial health. However, when your statements run counter to the body of evidence, it is necessary to provide compelling evidence of your own. It is never enough to say, “Don’t kid yourself—divesting will hurt the University financially.” Calls for divestment are not made in jest. Climate change is and will be a matter of life and death for many. The lack of evidence brought to the table thus far by you and the rest of the Harvard Corporation, however, does suggest a lack of seriousness.

    Other statements of yours indicate, to my mind, a lack of seriousness that is troubling, such as your suggestion to me during our last meeting that if Harvard divests from fossil fuels, the University will need to decide whether to divest from sugar. Surely you understand that fossil fuels and sugar are distinct in a number of fundamental ways. One of those ways, perhaps the main one, is that the production and consumption of sugar does not degrade the habitability of the planet for modern human civilization.

    Another important difference between fossil fuels and sugar is that those who decide to use fossil fuels and immediately benefit from their use are not the same people who bear the risk for their use. When carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere, it requires 25-50 years to cause the bulk of its warming effect, which then affects every living thing on the globe. Thus, when we use fossil fuels today, our children and grandchildren bear damages as a result (along with everyone else’s children and grandchildren). These future damages are large, they are accumulating and they are unpaid for. Fossil fuel companies are particularly profitable today because no one is paying for these damages. None of these facts are secrets. Through investing in fossil fuels, Harvard seeks to profit, and does profit, from these future damages.

    Your fear of a “slippery slope,” as you put it, in which divesting from fossil fuels leads to a campaign to divest from sugar, must be elaborated upon if it is to be used as a valid argument to maintain the status quo. The fear of a slippery slope can be used to counter any call for action in any area; it is not a valid argument unless there is evidence to show that taking one action will inevitably lead to another with costs that outweigh the benefits of the first action. We are not talking about divesting from sugar, or cats, or apples, even though cats scratch people and people choke on apples. We are talking about divesting from fossil fuels, because fossil fuels cause planetary climate change.

    You assert that to cease investments in fossil fuel extraction would be tantamount to using the endowment as a “political weapon.” This presupposes both the political effectiveness of divestment and the neutrality of remaining invested in fossil fuel extraction. Of course, if an act of divestment would be politically effective, then remaining invested cannot be neutral.

    In refusing to divest, Harvard is choosing to profit from future damages that create intergenerational and geographical inequity. This unnecessarily positions the endowment in conflict with the future welfare of our children and grandchildren. It is this status quo—not some hypothetical scenario—that is cause for offense and leads many to demand change.

    You have asserted that because we unavoidably use fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives, we should not stop investing in them. It is unclear why this should be the case. If your argument is an appeal for self-consistency, you seem to imply that no repudiation of fossil fuel use should be undertaken while we unavoidably use them. This is clearly not what is happening in the world around us, and pursuing such a policy would be enormously naïve. The renewable energy research at Harvard is done using electricity from fossil fuels. The Office for Sustainability carries out its work using fossil fuels. Both are repudiations of fossil fuel use that use fossil fuels. Should we stop these activities because they violate your appeal for self-consistency? Or do you mean something else by your argument?

    Fossil fuel use is unavoidable, because it is a large part of the energy mix today. We must become accustomed to taking steps away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon energy sources even while we use fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives, because there does not seem to be another choice. The description of self-consistency you have laid out, in which Harvard must either fund the fossil fuel industry for a profit or isolate itself entirely from fossil fuels in every way, is not representative of reality.

    It is entirely consistent to unavoidably use fossil fuels while carrying out low-carbon energy research to displace fossil fuels, and it is entirely consistent to unavoidably use fossil fuels while choosing not to invest in their continued dominance. If you truly think there is a case to be made regarding the inconsistency of divestment, then that case must be made more clearly.

    Some of your arguments appear to be inconsistent with each other, and this concerns me because inconsistency can indicate a preference for convenience over the truth. You’ve asserted that if Harvard were to divest from fossil fuel companies, it would have “no” political impact because Harvard, you allege, is not sufficiently influential. At the same time, you’ve told me that you are unwilling to speak on these issues publicly because a discussion of fossil fuel divestment at Harvard might garner too much media attention. These statements give the impression that you are willing to both deny and invoke the influence of Harvard, even at the same time, in order to avoid taking action on this important problem. I think some clarity is required on this topic.

    Finally, I am concerned that you are, perhaps, in denial or unaware of important political realities. Your recent denial of the effectiveness of fossil fuel companies in slowing the implementation of clean energy was surprising. I know that you have since indicated that you did not understand what was being discussed at the time. However, you have still not clarified what you understand regarding the political power of fossil fuel companies and the use of that power in our society.

    If you have evidence to support the feasibility of your plan to change fossil fuel companies to clean energy companies, you must present it. And if you have evidence to support your assertion that divestment, even partial divestment, will significantly hurt the University financially, you must present it. And if you are going to use “slippery slope” and self-consistency arguments as reasons for inaction on a problem that will affect all of our descendants, then you must make those arguments more clearly.

    Those calling for divestment have the right to do so, because the profit motive to exacerbate climate change at the expense of others—an activity that Harvard is now engaging in and endorsing—affects the welfare of their children, grandchildren and the generations that come after them. And the Harvard community has the right to discuss this issue openly with those who have decision-making power in this matter and those who are currently vetoing such calls. This includes, but might not be limited to, you and the other members of the Harvard Corporation.

    As for me, after more than a year of unproductive, closed-door meetings with members of the Corporation, during which the same list of unsubstantiated beliefs was presented repeatedly to justify inaction on a problem that will affect all of our descendants, I believe that public debate and discussion are required to separate the sense from the nonsense. You have shown an eagerness to engage with the fossil fuel industry. I ask that you show the same eagerness to engage with members of your own Harvard community who are working to protect their children and grandchildren.

    Climate change presents a long fight that will likely require generations of action. I believe we can make more progress by working together in the ways we are able rather than by dismissing others’ concerns. I cannot ask or expect that we will agree on every matter. All I can ask, for the sake of my descendants and those of others, is that you show both honesty and seriousness on this issue. Without those virtues from our leaders, our hope is greatly diminished.

    At the end of the day, we are acting for our children and grandchildren and for the generations beyond that. When we choose convenience over truth, we ultimately slow progress, and future generations pay the price. They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did on their behalf.


    Benjamin Franta •

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