Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why divest? Why Harvard?

The numbers are simple: X amount of coal, oil, or gas, consumed, produces Y amount of additional CO2 in the atmosphere, which causes Z degrees of temperature rise. Scientists discuss and debate all the particulars of that equation: just what damages will result from how many degrees of temperature rise, and how much carbon emission produces what effects. But no one seriously disputes the framework of the problem.

Likewise the argument of "leave it in the ground" is an inevitable corollary. Of known fossil fuel reserves, any consumption beyond 20-30% will produce catastrophic results. This number varies too: exploration and discovery of new reserves drives up the fraction--70-80% of reserves--that must not be used. Transfers from dirty coal to clean, from coal to gas, and so forth, might arguably drive those numbers down, but no one can seriously dispute that vast amounts--trillions of dollars worth of available fossil fuel deposits--must be written off, unused and unusable, to avert a species-threatening catastrophe. This is scientific knowledge, and only an irrational fool could dispute it.

Except, of course, that the mega-corporations that produce and market fossil energy DO dispute it: both in their official corporate communications, and more seriously in the fact that they continue to open up exploration sites and increase their reserves, as if those new reserves would of course be usable, right up to the brink of total disaster. And that's where divestment enters the story. Divesting from carbon-fuel producers is a symbolic act, modeled on the South African apartheid campaign, a way of saying "No, your way of doing business is unacceptable to the world community." It's also a practical--though still largely symbolic--way to withhold capital from corporations who would use it to open up new fossil-fuel exploration. "Not in my name" is a powerful moral statement.

But why Harvard (and Yale and Oxford and Swarthmore and many other prestigious institutions)? Isn't Harvard the site of useful research, both scientific and political, the sort of place where the many climate discrepancies might be sorted out, where thorny questions of energy economics and policy change are studied? Doesn't Harvard make a strong claim on Veritas=Truth? Yes, but it also makes a rigorous separation between 'Truth', researched fact, and practical action in the world. President Faust is adamant that Harvard's role is narrowly educational; meanwhile, its endowment, the largest academic endowment in the world, increased its fossil fuel holdings BY A FACTOR OF 7, i.e. they bought 7 times as much carbon-related stock as they previously owned, just last fall--at the very moment when the UN was convening a global summit on the climate crisis, and 400,000 of us were marching in the streets of New York for climate solutions.

Harvard's administration believes in a radical disconnect between the truth of its research and the force of its institutional presence in the finance markets. Harvard's administration is wrong. There is no time left for such sophistic distinctions. If global climate disruption is an impending disaster--and we know it is--then every institution with discretionary control over $39 billion of capital assets (or any amount, really) needs to step up and take responsibility. And Harvard in particular, whose administration has inherited 380 years or so of probity, whose Veritas 'brand' is the gold standard for academic prestige world-wide, who claims to represent all that is good and great in the world of science and reason--that Harvard cannot be Harvard and maintain its duplicity. It must not invest its resources in contradiction to its values. Harvard's administration needs to listen to its students, and tell them "Thank you" for saving Harvard from its own worst tendencies.

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