Above Photo: Joseph Williams/Wikimedia Commons.
Climate activists are hailing Harvard University’s move to divest from fossil fuels as a profound shift in the status quo and a model for other institutions.
The iconic and wealthy university’s decision to go fossil-free comes after years of resisting calls to divest, writes The Washington Post, citing Harvard President Larry S. Bacow’s invocation of the climate crisis as the reason for the about-face.
“We must act now as citizens, as scholars, and as an institution to address this crisis on as many fronts as we have at our disposal,” Bacow said in an open letter explaining the shift.
The university’s a call to action “is likely to have ripple effects in higher education and beyond, given Harvard’s US$41-billion endowment and its iconic status among American institutions,” notes the Post. Along with ending all direct investment in fossil exploration or development, Harvard “also plans to allow its remaining indirect investments in the fossil fuel industry—through private equity funds—to lapse without renewal.”
That figure currently stands at about 2% of the endowment, the Post says.
“Harvard is really a very potent symbol of the status quo,” said Richard Brooks, climate finance director at San Francisco-based Stand.earth. “With this move, they have shifted the status quo. That’s where the power of this announcement and this change really lies.”
But that shift still has a lot of ground to cover. Bloomberg writes that the 10 largest U.S. public pension funds still have some 9% of their combined equity holdings parked with 20 of the world’s biggest emitters, to the tune of roughly $40 billion.
In Canada, just a few short days before the Harvard announcement, the University of British Columbia’s student newspaper The Ubyssey reviewed the school’s February 2020 promise to divest its C$1.99 billion endowment from fossil fuels by 2030.
Nineteen months after pledging to sever its financial ties with Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell PLC, Italy’s Eni SpA, and France’s Total SE, divestment is “taking time,” with the UBC Investment Management Trust (IMANT) announcing in December 2020 that it had moved $34 million in endowment dollars to fossil-free funds. This past March, the trust committed to move “an additional $110 million of its total assets—which includes the endowment and staff pension fund—away from fossil fuels.”
Also in the works, IMANT revealed in a written statement to The Ubyssey last month, is a plan “to commit another $85 million toward a ‘Paris aligned’ investment that has more stringent requirements for lowering carbon emissions.”
But members of Climate Justice UBC rejected the 2030 divestment deadline as “too late”. They decried the university’s ongoing willingness to put fossil profits before people—in particular, marginalized people like the fishers and farmers of the Niger delta region who have watched their ecosystems become collateral damage in the world’s thirst for oil.
Illustrative of this reality, writes The Ubyssey, is the university’s continued investment in the likes of Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, even after oil lobbyists in Nigeria “watered down a long-awaited oil regulation law” that will require them to return a percentage of their profits to local communities to support needs like clean water and education. Fossils were successful in whittling down the 10% levy supported by the communities to a mere 3%.