Posted by: ericgrimsrud | March 4, 2021

Presidents of Harvard envision “peace in our times” with the fossil fuel industries.

Despite huge support from students, faculty, and alumni, Harvard University has refused to join some of its peers, such as Oxford and Cambridge of Great Britain and Berkeley of the USA, in divesting from fossil-fuel companies. Its Board of Directors has now even changed the rules of election to the Board, so that climate-defending alumni cannot become a majority.

As to Harvard’s reasons for not divesting, I have provided below the views of the previous President of Harvard, Drew Faust, and the current President, Lawrence Bacow .

In an open letter, Ex-President Faust wrote:

“Divestment is likely to have a negligible financial impact on the affected companies. And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry. Divestment pits concerned citizens and institutions against companies that have enormous capacity and responsibility to promote progress toward a more sustainable future.”

Later, the current President of Harvard, Lawrence Bacow wrote:

“We believe that divestment paints with too broad a brush. We cannot risk alienating and demonizing possible partners, some of which have committed to transitioning to carbon neutrality and to funding research on alternative fuels and on strategies to decarbonize the economy”.

In my opinion, a more honest answer to the question “why don’t universities divest” would be the following. As usual, it comes down to money. Many colleges and universities in the USA are now wrapped up in their own divestment debates. Despite calls from students and faculty groups, their administrations have generally not yielded, due to the profitability of investing in such companies. Not only have investments in fossil fuel companies been profitable, but the donations of fossil-fuel-related businesses provide educational institutions with significant boosts to their endowment funds.

The tone of this discourse reminds me of the appeasement efforts made by Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, just prior to the outbreak of WII. After Germany had usurped Austria and Czechoslovakia, Chamberlain went to Berlin in order to have a “heart-to-heart” discussion with Adolf Hitler, the Chancellor of Germany.

Upon returning to Britain, Chamberlain proclaimed that all would be well because of his renewed understanding of Hitler’s motives and their joint interest in maintaining “peace in our times”.  So, Britain did nothing and a short time later, Germany invaded Poland and WWII began.

If your reaction to my above paragraph is “but the fossil fuel companies are not at all like Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime”, I would suggest that you study a bit more about the activities of the fossil fuel companies since the 1970’s and think again. Back in the 70’s, the fossil fuel companies had the best research programs in the world concerning the effects of fossil fuel combustion and CO2 emissions into our atmosphere. But when their scientists brought their discoveries to the fossil fuel Board of Directors, those boards saw that carbon combustion could very likely lead to global warming. But instead of sharing this information with the public, they decided to stop funding their research in that area and, instead, spend those funds on efforts to undermine the credibility of research on this topic being done by others.

Those same fossil fuel companies are still doing their best today to mislead the public so that they can keep their fossil fuel profits flowing for as long as possible – even as our planet continues its relentless advance towards a distinctly unfriendly hot-house state. Thus, the fossil fuel industries have been behaving in a sociopathic manner in which their profit motives have greatly exceeded their concern for the wellbeing of all people on our planet – and they have been doing this for more than the last four decades! If that isn’t the very definition of sociopathic behavior, I don’t know what is.

Thus, I think my comparison of Neville Chamberlain’s naivete concerning the duplicity of Hitler to the naivete of the Harvard Presidents concerning the duplicity of our fossil fuel companies is appropriate. In both cases, Chamberlain and the Harvard Presidents were and are being fooled into siding with the sociopathic monsters of their era whose plans would result in the degradation of our planet and its inhabitants. Just as Great Britain eventually had to face the reality of Hitler’s real intentions in 1939, the Harvard Board and its presidents should do the same today concerning the fossil-fuel industries and their plans for the future.

In short, our universities should not be supporting activities that have been declared by our own scientific experts to pose an existential threat to humanity and future generations. And no amount of anemic “legalese” used by the Harvard presidents in defense of fossil fuel industries will lesson the problem of global warming. The science behind this issue is clear. After way too much delay, we must now take very forceful action and if that offends the fossil fuel industries, so be it. Since the science is now clear, the most important remaining issue concerns our sense of fairness to present and future inhabitants of our planet. Are we going to do our best to ensure their wellbeing or not?  

One of the main reasons why it appears to be so difficult to do the right thing in this instance is because too many of us have become a part of the “fossil-fuel largess”. That is, the fossil fuel industries share some of their profits with some of us and especially those who are in positions of influence in society – such as the administrators of our colleges and universities. Those donations have become increasingly important to our educational institutions in recent years because of the reductions of revenue received from their traditional sources of funding in recent decades.

Thus, our institutions of higher education have changed their roles somewhat from being dedicated entirely to the quality of their offerings to becoming extensions of the commercial enterprises of the regions they serve. Harvard, for example, is probably not going to be too critical of the fossil fuel industries when a significant fraction of their endowment and as well as specific research/educational programs have been financed by those industries. Much better to be a “friend” of the fossil fuel industries who, after all, claim that they share our concern about future warming – while at the same time want to ensure that their enormous investments and capabilities for fossil fuel production are not threatened.

An apt comparison to this mutual understanding would have been provided in 1939 if Chamberlain had allowed Hitler to expand Germany’s borders to include Poland as well as Austria and Czechoslovakia so that Europe could enjoy even more “peace in our times”.  Having been fooled too many times before, however, Chamberlain finally terminated his advocacy for Germany and its Fuhrer. All advocates for continued fossil fuel use must do the same today if we ever expect to get onto a pollution-free path to energy production.   


  1. Great comparison Eric!, and, thanks for looking at “new ways” to continue the good fight against the deleterious effects of the Fossil Fuel Industry as they continue, unabated, and with no penalty, towards adding more than their share to the woe’s of Climate Change.

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