Monday, April 13, 2015

Harvard Heat Week: Day 1

Student climate activists with Divest Harvard began their week-long protest today by blockading the offices of President Faust and the Harvard Corporation in Harvard Yard. Today's theme was 'Alumni,' and a hundred or so graying activists from previous campaigns joined in supporting the students, now in their third year  of demanding that the world's richest university remove fossil fuel investments from its endowment portfolio. Bill McKibben, founder of and Harvard '82, set the tone when he recalled how President Eliot declared in 1869 that it would take "many generations" to determine whether educating women made sense. Veterans of Harvard's South African divestment campaign noted that Harvard was among the last major institutions to get on board, preferring a nominal policy of 'constructive engagement' that in practice meant supporting the status quo while carrying on no meaningful engagement. It is clearly fanciful to imagine that its shares of petroleum stocks do anything other than fund the destructive expansion of those industries.

One speaker quoted Thoreau "Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine." He recognized an audience member, a Harvard Divinity School student recently released from federal prison after serving two years for disrupting a petroleum rights auction on public lands: life as "counter-friction."

Within the University community, alumni are organizing to withhold gifts from the University. A Divestment Fund has been created, and alumni signed cards pledging donations to that fund, which will revert to Harvard only when it divests from fossil fuel corporations. Some dozens of alumni were planning to sit-in at the Harvard Alumni Affairs office in the afternoon, an act of civil disobedience for which arrests were expected. More counter-friction.

Harvard's administration has been adamant that endowment portfolios will be exempt from policy considerations, even one as morally urgent as climate change. President Faust has instead cited the University's role in supporting research, even though, as several speakers noted, the endowment funds support spurious pseudo-research by large petroleum corporations intent on obfuscating the science of climate change. After Heat Week plans were announced, Harvard arranged a panel discussion for this afternoon, with an array of well-known scientists and moderated by popular talk-show host Charlie Rose, presumably to dramatize its role in advancing scientific inquiry. McKibben and others suggested that decades after climate science pointed to the growing crisis, it may be time for concrete action, rather than more panel discussion. Others noted with some appreciation Harvard's ability to convene experts such as presidential science advisorJohn Holdren or IPCC co-chair Christopher Field. The panel event is a classic instance of Harvard strategy to reframe the question more favorably, while the substantive issue of divestment remains out of sight.

Meanwhile at the rally outside Harvard's Massachusetts Hall another expert had the final say: former Colorado senator Tim Wirth, who in 1988 invited NASA climate scientist James Hansen to present the first comprehensive testimony on climate change to the US Senate. As a career politician, Harvard overseer, and environmental advocate with a distinctly patrician air, Senator Wirth made clear that "we aren't here to beat up Harvard--that would be a waste of our time." Rather, he noted, the goal was to help President Faust out of the "corner" where she finds herself. His suggestion: an open public consultation, such as MIT recently conducted, where the divestment issue could get a public hearing and perhaps reach some consensus. Wirth's remarks sounded oddly conciliatory after the more urgent messages of speakers who preceded him--his were the words of a pragmatist, a compromiser who understands that in politics no one gets everything they want. Given the powerful forces within the Harvard Corporation and the larger financial class they represent, perhaps Wirth is right, that 'beating up' is futile and procedural niceties necessary. But will the melting ice caps and rising temperatures wait for the orderly process Wirth suggests? Civil disobedience raises the volume. Maybe dire circumstances make that the right move.

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