Changing Our Approach to Climate: The Value of Fossil Fuel Divestment

It’s a problem we all recognize but fail to grasp: global emissions of CO2 are pushing humanity towards a post-civilization scenario. The latest science predicts a 160-foot foot sea level rise if humans burn all known oil, gas, and coal reserves. If fossil fuel companies continue to pursue business as usual for the next 35 years, global temperatures by 2050 will be 7°F higher than the preindustrial average. Just half that warming would likely trigger the melting of Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, raising sea levels by 33 feet.

We’re not doing enough to avoid catastrophe. Although every member of the United Nations has committed to keeping total global warming below 3.6°F — a rate at which we’d still see massive sea level rise, the death of most coral reefs, and the uninhabitability of entire Pacific island nations — the international community’s current proposals for limiting emissions would send us well past even that target. There is some hope in the recent U.S.-China climate agreement, and the likelihood of further commitments at the Paris Climate Conference in December. But even the most ambitious plans on the table permit warming that would, among other things, wipe out many of the world’s great cities and even some countries. Worse, the Supreme Court could dismantle the EPA climate plan – and the international agreements that depend on it – and Congress remains unwilling to act on the issue.

So the question is — what are we going to do about it? And what can Harvard students do? At this late hour, how can we can wake people up to the climate crisis, put the pressure on politicians, and finally get policies that accord with reality?

One proven method for raising climate change awareness is fossil fuel divestment. Around the world, and right here at Harvard, activists are calling on their institutions to pull all investments from oil, gas, and coal companies, adapting a strategy that enjoyed tremendous success in the apartheid and anti-tobacco movements. Divestment takes aim at the root cause of climate change: our economic commitment to ever-increasing extraction and burning of fossil fuels. Divestment sends shock signals through the system, making investors wary of hitching their fortunes to a dangerous product.

More importantly, by conveying the moral stakes of the climate crisis, divestment stigmatizes Big Energy and impels lawmakers to act in spite of the industry’s vast lobbying prowess. Divestment is also a way to encourage progressives to take a bolder stance. In a 2013 speech on climate change President Obama encouraged this challenge. “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest.” The advice was reminiscent of FDR’s famous admonition to labor leaders: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

Divestment works, especially when places as influential as Harvard jump on board. Divestment is consistent with our values and vision for global action. To invest in fossil fuel companies is to bet on the planet’s destruction, since their share prices reflect plans to extract enough coal, oil and natural gas to raise sea level far more than 33 feet. If we are to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 at below 500ppm, annual investments in fossil fuels will have to decrease by roughly $400 billion over the next fifteen years. Continued investment in fossil fuels is simply incompatible with a livable planet.

This crisis has impelled 400 institutions, including nearly thirty universities, to divest from fossil fuels, according to gofossilfree.org. They include Stanford, Georgetown and the University of Oxford. MIT may add to their number this fall. Municipalities are also getting on board. The Cambridge City Council unanimously endorsed divestment, and fourteen Massachusetts towns and cities have passed resolutions supporting it. Those of us moving to New York City or California will also soon be in localities that have divested from coal. We can tell the strategy is working: energy companies see divestment as a threat to continued extraction and are already dropping fossil fuels in response to movement pressure.

So — what about Harvard? The University’s position is dispiriting, with the governing Harvard Corporation refusing to even consider divesting its endowment. In fact, Harvard’s publicly-disclosed investments in fossil fuel companies increased seven-fold between 2012 and 2014. The Corporation has relied on three main arguments to defend this reactionary position. First, Harvard claims that it doesn’t want to “politicize” itself by changing its investment strategy based on social concerns. This is odd: does Harvard think that an investment strategy consistent with the warming targets of the entire global community is too “political”? And it’s hard to see how the University’s current position — stubborn allegiance to the fossil fuel industry — could be apolitical, especially given Harvard’s track history of divesting from undesirable sectors like apartheid-linked firms and tobacco companies.

Harvard’s second argument against divestment is that the strategy is ineffective, a claim belied by the amount of time and money that fossil fuel industry spends to block the divestment movement. Moreover, a thorough study by the University of Oxford finds that divestment movements have in the past achieved definite results, often playing an invaluable role in rallying support for a cause, and predicts similar results in the fossil fuel case.

Harvard’s last line of defense is that divestment would reduce investment returns. This is an equally weak rationale given that stocks in oil and coal companies have plummeted. Moreover, Harvard’s selfish arguments miss the point: since climate change is a global commons problem, solving it will require collective sacrifice for the common good. The wealthy Harvards of the world can certainly afford a minor hit to the bottom line if the trade-off is a healthy planet. Instead, Harvard embraces the very mentality — relentless pursuit of profit at all costs — that has put us in this situation.

Harvard is behind the times. It’s also not listening to its students: 67 percent of law students and 72 percent of undergraduates have voiced their support for divestment. They understand that the fight at Harvard is a proxy of the international struggle between a majority demanding climate action and an elite minority that controls access to power and the flow of capital. They understand that, with so little time and so much at stake, we have to choose sides. Harvard’s leadership has chosen to side with the fossil fuel industry: its opposition to divestment is proudly touted by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

Luckily, Divest Harvard is one of the most active and relentless university campaigns around. From garnering significant faculty support to committing mass civil disobedience, students have made Harvard a center of the climate fight. And there’s a big need for law students to get involved.

HLS students enjoy a prominent reputation in the legal world. Our voices can help show establishment support for a position too often dismissed as radical. If inspired by its younger members, more in the legal community would use the law as a sword for conservation rather than a shield for the dirtiest polluters. Just as many law firms refused to join the case against gay marriage, more might begin to think twice about supporting fossil fuel companies. Would Professor Laurence Tribe have been so quick to challenge Obama’s climate plan if his school, among many others, divested from coal? And like other social movements, divestment can help to awaken the moral sensibilities of the Supreme Court, thus discouraging it from striking down regulatory actions.

Lawyers, and even law students, can affect litigation more directly. The Netherlands provides one model. A Dutch court ordered the government to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2020 in order to preserve the low-lying Netherlands and protect its people from the dangers of global warming.

Some of your classmates are taking a similar tack. Last week, the student plaintiffs in the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition v. Harvard case — the first fossil fuel divestment lawsuit in the country — filed briefs at the Massachusetts Appeals Court, seeking to reverse their lower court dismissal. The students, who represent themselves, argue that Harvard is violating its charitable duties and committing a tort against future generations by continuing to fund fossil fuel extraction. Their court documents, which you can read online, take special aim at the oil industry’s dissemination of scientific falsehoods and Harvard’s own knowledge of climate change harms. As a sign of how we, as law students, can make a difference, the case has already garnered national attention, laying the groundwork for similar efforts elsewhere.

So get involved. You’ll be surprised by how much influence you can wield, if only you stand up and refuse to accept the status quo. This semester, divestment campaigners on campus will be ramping up the pressure through protests, a fossil free alumni fund, and research projects. If you want Harvard to be part of the solution rather than the problem, connect with Divest Harvard and the law student group Students for Sustainable Investment. The time to act is now.

Jonathan Hiles and Ted Hamilton are third-year J.D. students at Harvard. They can be reached at jhiles@jd15.law.harvard.edu and johamilton@jd16.law.harvard.edu.

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