Fossil Fuel Divestment: Harvard Students Blockade Entrance in Protest

Calling for the university to pull its investments from fossil fuels, group of students say Trump administration policies make combating climate change more crucial.

Students blocked the entrance to Harvard's administration building to urge the school to divest from fossil fuels
Students blocked the entrance to Harvard's administration building to urge the school to divest from fossil fuels. Credit: Mattea Mrkusic of Divest Harvard, via Twitter

Share this article

A group of Harvard University students urging university officials to pull the school’s investments from fossil fuel companies blocked the entrance to one of the university’s main administrative buildings. They promised to stay until the end of the business day.

The group of approximately 20 undergraduate students gathered at the entrances to Harvard’s University Hall at 6:00 a.m. on Wednesday, demanding that the university commit to a permanent divestment from coal companies and hold an open, community-wide meeting on fossil fuel divestment. Harvard currently does not have any investments in coal companies in its $35.7 billion endowment though school officials have said they do not rule out re-investing in coal in the future.

The protest, organized by the group Divest Harvard, comes after Harvard President Drew Faust declined the group’s request earlier this year for a permanent divestment from coal.

Divest Harvard wrote a letter to Faust on Feb. 17 asking her to reconsider because of President Trump’s promise to repeal efforts by the Obama administration to control emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels.

Faust responded with a letter on March 20 reiterating the university’s refusal to divest.

“The shift in the political landscape does not alter the University’s fundamental aversion to instrumentalizing the endowment as a means of seeking to influence the political process,” Faust wrote. “Deploying the endowment as a tool to intervene in the political process or as a lever to advance broader social objectives, even eminently worthy ones, poses risks to the independence of the academic enterprise. Those risks are no less real now than before.”

Nearly 700 institutions and 58,400 individuals representing at least $5 trillion in assets have divested from fossil fuel companies, one group promoting and tracking the divestment movement reported in December. The movement started at a handful of Northeast colleges in 2012 and has led to growing university support.

The University of Massachusetts announced it will divest all direct fossil fuel holdings and Boston College said it would avoid investments in coal and tar sands. Recently Yale and Columbia promised at least some level of divestment as have more than a quarter of universities in Great Britain.

Divest Harvard called Faust’s response unacceptable.

“We fundamentally reject her notion that fossil fuels, particularly coal, do not pose an injurious harm to humans so severe that they merit divestment,” Jonah Hahn, a senior member of Divest Harvard, said from the front steps of University Hall. “What good is an environmentally friendly campus when we financially support global polluters and don’t outright denounce profiting from the degradation of our environment?”

In 1990, Harvard divested from tobacco companies. Then-president Derek Bok said it was out of a desire not to be associated with “companies engaged in significant sales of products that create a substantial and unjustified risk of harm to human health.” Hahn said the same criteria apply to coal.

“Coal is the dirtiest fossil fuel and has a truly tremendous negative effect on human health, and we believe it meets the criteria established by President Bok when he decided to divest from tobacco.”

Harvard officials said divestment from fossil fuels is not warranted.

“We agree that climate change is one of the world’s most urgent and serious issues, but we respectfully disagree with Divest Harvard on the means by which a university should confront it,” Harvard spokesperson Tania deLuzuriaga said in a statement.

 The protest comes one day after Trump signed an executive order to undo President Obama’s climate policies including the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

“When the most powerful leader in the world is actively rejecting the science that is signifying the potential demise of the planet, there is no greater urgency,” Hahn said. “The onus falls on other institutions like Harvard to really take the lead and demand change.”