An Open Letter to Jim Yong Kim Re: Divestment from Fossil Fuels

Jim Yong Kim
President, World Bank

Dear Dr. Kim:

We write to thank you on behalf of Divest Harvard, a group of students calling for Harvard University to divest its endowment holdings in fossil fuel companies. In your remarks at the Davos World Economic Forum in January, you gave hope, encouragement, and inspiration to the thousands of students across America working to address climate change through divestment. Your speech – which adds to the growing chorus of pro-divestment calls made by prominent figures, such as President Barack Obama and Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change – showed great insight and leadership by making clear that climate change is an urgent global crisis requiring immediate and decisive action. Specifically, you said:

“This is the year to take action on climate change. There are no more excuses. If we fail, our children and grandchildren will ask us why we didn’t act when it was still possible to do so.

“We need leaders who are not thinking about short-term returns or election cycles. We need leaders who are thinking foremost about taking care of the most vulnerable in this generation and the generations ahead….

“Through policy reforms, we can divest and tax that which we don’t want, the carbon that threatens development gains over the last 20 years.”

Divest Harvard has been calling for this exact kind of leadership at Harvard. Unfortunately, under President Drew Gilpin Faust, the university has failed to meet the challenge. Resisting calls to divest, Harvard continues to invest in hundreds of fossil fuel companies, whose entire business model revolves around the extraction and burning of carbon. These companies have sought to keep the world hooked on fossil fuel — by feeding it with coal, oil, and gas, by engaging in active campaigns to deceive the public about the risks and causes of global warming, and by thwarting legislative and regulatory efforts to address the crisis. President Faust has advanced a panoply of arguments, some conflicting, to rationalize Harvard’s role in profiting off of and exacerbating climate change through its investments. In doing so, she has dismissed the concerns and clear will of students across Harvard, where approximately two thirds of undergraduates and law students voting in referenda supported divestment, as well as many Harvard faculty and alumni.

Your comments at Davos are all the more significant since you recently served as president of Dartmouth College, where a vibrant divestment movement exists. Thus, you are doubtless sensitive to the position of university presidents seeking to protect their institution’s financial well-being and educational missions. Yet your remarks astutely implied that divestment might be consistent with, indeed demanded by, the responsibilities of leaders of large organizations:

“The so-called ‘long-term investors’ must recognize their fiduciary responsibility to future pension holders who will be affected by decisions made today. Corporate leaders should not wait to act until market signals are right and national investment policies are in place.”

We could not agree more. We would simply add that the leaders of nonprofit organizations – including and especially universities, which hold a special and prominent place in providing moral and cultural leadership – have an identical, if not even stronger, obligation.

We applaud you for your vision, your courage, and your challenge to us all, and we welcome your support in encouraging the world’s most influential institutions to stop seeking short-term profits from global destruction.

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