I grew up in Cambridge, just around the corner from Harvard Yard, and the first word in Latin I ever learned was “Veritas.” Truth. The motto, laid out in those three iconic books that adorn the Harvard shield, is plastered on everything from sweatshirts to the statue of John Harvard.
Harvard’s commitment to its creed is now being tested by a new campaign pushing the college to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Along with students at over 100 other campuses across the country, Harvard undergrads are pushing the college to immediately freeze all new investments in the fossil fuel industry and then phase out all holdings over the next five years. Earlier this month, a student body resolution supporting divestment passed with 72 percent of the vote.
The campaign is part of a new, nationwide divestment movement spearheaded by 350.org, an international climate campaign that I helped co-found with writer (and Harvard graduate) Bill McKibben. Over the last month, we’ve been building support for the effort with an old-fashioned, 21-city road show called. When the “Do The Math” tour came to Boston on Nov. 15, we sold out the 2,500 seat Orpheum Theater.
Bill first laid out the math that we’re talking about this summer, in a piece for Rolling Stone that went viral, becoming one of the most shared online articles in the magazine’s history. It goes like this: So far we’ve warmed the planet 1 degree Celsius, enough to melt the polar ice-caps and plunge most of the country into an epic drought this summer. Scientists say that in order to avoid climate catastrophe we must keep warming below 2 C, a target that the U.S. and nearly every other country on Earth has agreed to meet. To stay below that mark, we can only emit another 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Now, here comes the scary part: The fossil fuel industry currently has 2795 gigatons of CO2 in their reserves and every day they’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars looking for more carbon to burn.
Do the math: Fossil fuel corporations, and the countries that act like fossil fuel companies (think Saudi Arabia and Venezuela), are planning to emit five times more carbon dioxide than scientists and governments have agreed is safe. As Bill put it, either the fossil fuel industry has a healthy bottom line or we have a healthy planet, you can’t have both.
This is where divestment comes in. As institutions dedicated not to profit — but to education, colleges and universities have a special responsibility not to fund the destruction of the planet. Divestment is not only a tool to strip away the social license of the fossil fuel industry, but a way for universities to live up to their core values.
In 1990, Harvard joined other colleges across the country to divest from the tobacco industry. It was the right decision. Today, smokestacks are just as dangerous as cigarettes. If it was right to divest from the tobacco industry, then it’s only consistent to divest from the fossil fuel industry as well.
Perhaps the most famous use of divestment related to the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. At Harvard, the debate over whether to divest from that country went on for years. In 1984, the Advisory Committee on Shareholder Responsibility voted in favor of total divestment, writing:
Even if the costs were great, would it be too great for the University — which exists to serve the pursuit of Truth — to pay in order to separate itself from support of a regime which denies the truth to which this university has always been dedicated: that all people are created equal?
Harvard is also dedicated, one assumes, to the truth that all people and future generations, deserve a livable planet. It’s time for President Drew Gilpin Faust and the Harvard Corporation to live up to their motto and divest from fossil fuels.