How to stop climate change: divest from fossil fuel companies

In response to a very downbeat diatribe by Bill McKibben in Rolling Stone on the occasion of the U.N.’s Rio+20 conference being some sound and less fury accomplishing not much about stopping climate change, [Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is”] Chloe Maxmin, Divest Harvard Harvard student Chloe Maxmin followed up McKibben’s problem statement with a plan for what to do: divest from fossil fuel companies. [“In Honor of Kalamazoo: An Open Letter to Bill McKibben,” NextGenJournal, 25 July 2012, no longer online, referred to in a post the same day by Chloe Maxmin on First Here, Then Everywhere.] Maxmin didn’t just wish, either, she joined up with McKibben’s and helped organize Harvard students to do something about it: persuade Harvard to divest its shares of fossil fuel companies. Students at the University of Georgia, or at Valdosta State University, for that matter, could do the same.

Alli Welton wrote for 18 November 2012, 72% of Harvard Students Vote to Divest from Fossil Fuels,

Last Friday night, the Harvard College Undergraduate Council announced that the student body had voted 72% in favor of Harvard University divesting its $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels.

Members of the Harvard chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future have been campaigning since September to divest Harvard’s endowment from the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel corporations that own the majority of the world’s oil, coal, and gas reserves.

Harvard actually already has divested its shares of one fossil fuel company due to public pressure. Stephen M. Marks and Lauren A.E. Schuker wrote for the Crimson 4 April 2005, Harvard To Divest From PetroChina: Decisions comes after months of pressure due to company’s links to Sudan

Harvard will sell its shares of PetroChina after months of pressure regarding PetroChina’s alleged ties to ongoing genocide in the Darfur region in Sudan, the University announced today….

The announcement coincided with a student demonstration this morning, where students—wearing black and carrying signs—rallied for Harvard to divest its holdings in PetroChina….

University President Lawrence H. Summers, who asked for the ACSR for a recommendation on the issue, said in a press release that while Harvard does not usually divest, the circumstances surrounding PetroChina merit an exception.

“Divestment is not a step that Harvard takes lightly, but I believe there is a compelling case for action in these special circumstances, in light of the terrible situation unfolding in Darfur and the leading role played by PetroChina’s parent company in the Sudanese oil industry, which is so important to the Sudanese regime,” Summers aid.

Yes, that Larry Summers, the architect of the 2009 global financial meltdown. Even Larry Summers thought divestment was appropriate in the case of PetroChina.

Summers’ replacement after he was ejected by the faculty, current Harvard President Drew Faust, still sounds the “circumstances” alarm, countered by an op-ed in the Crimson, the student newspaper, 14 November 2012, Vote to Divest,

At the Undergraduate Council and Harvard Graduate Council General Meeting on October 21st, President Faust said that Harvard considers divestment is considered: “Only in the most extreme of circumstances.” DARA, an independent, non-profit organization, recently released a report sponsored by 20 governments that shows that the human death toll from climate change could exceed 100 million by 2030. Most of these deaths are the direct result of burning fossil fuels. It is hard to imagine a circumstance much more extreme. Moreover, climate change is an equity issue. Most of the adverse effects of climate change disproportionately impact developing countries, while the majority of greenhouse gas emissions since the industrial revolution have come from industrialized nations.

Summers and Faust no doubt know of an even bigger case of divestment prompted by students, starting as early as 1977, when then-president Derek Bok sounded the “circumstances” alarm:

President Bok’s open letters, which called total divestiture unjustifiable and a threat to Harvard’s academic freedom and financial longevity, gave the Corporation the appearance of concern and served to further anesthetize student opposition.

That’s the same Derek Bok who was brought in as interim president after Summers was ejected, until Faust was selected. But it turned out there were special circumstances, as evidenced by a former student, Gay W. Seidman ’78, getting elected in 1986 by petition to Harvard’s Board of Overseers on a pro-divestment platform. Three years later, the pro-divestment movement got South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu elected in 1989 to the Board of Overseers.

Gay Seidman, 1970s Back in the late 1970s when the divestment movement started on campus at Harvard, who was reporting on it at and then president of the Crimson? The same Gay Seidman who later got elected to the Board of Overseers.

“I thought that [the anti-apartheid story] would be bigger earlier [than most],” she explains. “This was really going to matter.”

Can Chloe Maxmin duplicate that feat? Maybe not the same way, since Harvard changed the rules to make petition candidates harder to elect. So hard even after being elected president of Harvard Law Review in 1990, Barack Obama couldn’t get elected to the Board of Overseers in 1991. Yes, he was running on a pro-divestment platform. So was my classmate Steven Ballmer ’77, now CEO of Microsoft; even he couldn’t get elected on a petition.

However, the pro-divestment movement was successful in the end. Adam A. Sofen and Alan E. Wirzbicki wrote for the Crimson (unknown date), A CONFLICTED RELATIONSHIP: Harvard supported South Africa through investments, but partially divested under protest. They wrote that Harvard actually adopted its first pro-divestment rules in 1978 under president “unjustifiable” Bok, and,

End Harvard's Share in Apartheid By 1985 these rules, which were reviewed periodically, called for the University to use its proxy votes to urge companies operating in South Africa to “take active steps to oppose apartheid.”

It also forbade investing in banks that made loans to the South African government and companies that provided “significant quantities of an important good or service used in the direct enforcement of apartheid.” The policy also promised a divestment of stock in companies that refused to disclose the extent of their operations in South Africa.

As we’ve seen, pro-divestment activists didn’t stop there. And their work had something to do with the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1993. It wasn’t just that Harvard was among the first of many universities to divest; their divestment influenced many other organizations and people. Students can have the same effect on stopping fossil fuel companies from ruining the world through climate change. Chloe Maxmin knows this history, as she wrote for

Chloe Maxmin, a co-coordinator for Divest Harvard, said that the election results show unprecedented student voice around divestment: “In 1990, 52% of voting students supported complete divestment from apartheid South Africa. Today 72% of voting students are raising their voices for fossil divestment, telling Harvard to stop investing in companies that are threatening our future.”

Divest Harvard was the first student group in six years to successfully qualify a referendum question for Harvard student government elections, gaining hundreds of signatures beyond the 670 (10% of the undergraduate student body) necessary for qualification. The passage of the referendum makes fossil fuel divestment the official position of the Harvard College Undergraduate Council.

Can’t get a petition candidate elected to the Board of Overseer? Get the student body to vote 72% on a petition referendum question. Try to ignore that, Overseers! And that’s not only more than the 52% apartheid pro-divestment vote in 1990, it’s way faster: three months September to November, compared to thirteen years from 1977 to 1990.

Divest for our Future logo There is a nationwide college divestment campaign, Divest for our future, already involving 24 campuses. The University of Georgia can join that list. And that could start at one of UGA system’s big regional universities: the Valdosta State University, with more students than most of the colleges and universities already on the list.

Who will stand up against the fossil fuel companies?