Harvard to divest from fossil fuels after decade of protests

Ivy League standard-bearer cites climate wreckage in cutting oil industry from its $42 billion (£30 billion) endowment

September 10, 2021
Harvard Memorial Hall
Source: iStock

Harvard University has announced plans to rid its world-leading $42 billion (£30 billion) endowment of any remaining investments in what it considers to be the fossil fuel industry, after a decade of student protests.

After long insisting the Ivy League institution was correct to be working with fossil fuel companies, Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, says he now realises otherwise.

In a statement to the Harvard community, Professor Bacow suggests that recent climate-related catastrophes have convinced him of the seriousness of the situation.

“The last several months have laid at our feet undeniable evidence of the world to come – massive fires that consume entire towns, unprecedented flooding that inundates major urban areas, record heatwaves and drought that devastate food supplies and increase water scarcity,” the Harvard leader says.

Harvard, regularly ranked as having the world’s largest university endowment, follows a list of major institutions that includes the University of California system and the University of Cambridge in making the move to divest.

The accomplishment took a decade of dedicated activism that included student sit-ins and arrests, faculty and alumni votes, and – in a move that drew particular rebuke from Professor Bacow – protesters storming the field during the 2019 football game between Harvard and Yale universities.

Following that game, Professor Bacow told the student newspaperThe Harvard Crimson, that he and the protesters “just happen to have an honest difference of opinion over what the appropriate action is”.

His reversal now represents “a major win for the climate justice movement – and a major blow against the fossil fuel industry”, said Suhaas Bhat, a Harvard undergraduate and leader of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

“With this announcement,” he said, “[Harvard] acknowledges that its arguments – that fossil fuel stocks were necessary for profit, that the endowment shouldn’t play a role in fighting climate change, that fossil fuel companies are actually part of the solution, and more – were wrong.”

Harvard, meanwhile, characterised its decision as part of an ongoing strategy to tackle the climate problem that already had reduced its fossil-fuel-related investments to less than 2 per cent of the overall endowment.

“These legacy investments are in run-off mode and will end as these partnerships are liquidated,” Professor Bacow says in his announcement, without citing a definite timetable for finishing the withdrawal.

Harvard also has eliminated fossil fuels in its own campus operations, recently appointed its first-ever vice-provost for climate and sustainability, and has its endowment managers “building a portfolio of investments in funds that support the transition to a green economy”, Professor Bacow says.

The university is acting at a moment of heavy public pressure for such divestment, yet at a time when public consumption of fossil fuels remains robust and investments in their producers is broadly profitable.

The 10 largest US public pension funds are still investing about $40 billion, or 9 per cent of their total holdings, in 20 high-carbon emitting companies, according to Bloomberg analysis.


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