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Divest Harvard Holds Virtual Earth Day Rally

Divest Harvard storms the field at the Harvard-Yale Game in November.
Divest Harvard storms the field at the Harvard-Yale Game in November. By Timothy R. O'Meara
By Ellen M. Burstein and Michelle G. Kurilla, Crimson Staff Writers

What becomes of divestment activism after Harvard has unveiled a timeline for its endowment to go carbon neutral?

Divest Harvard, the activist group that has spent years calling for Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry, opened a new chapter of its movement with a virtual rally Wednesday, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

The Zoom rally, which included more than 90 participants, featured speakers from across professions, including current undergraduates, environmentalists, and physicians on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speakers at the rally included environmental activist and former Crimson President Bill E. McKibben ’82, Harvard Medical School instructor Gaurab Basu, Executive Director of Seeding Sovereignty Janet MacGillivray, Harvard’s Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History Fellow Kristina Shull, and several College student organizers.

In an email to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tuesday afternoon, University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced that the University would “achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions overall by 2050” as a response to their overwhelming vote in favor of divestment.

“We appreciate that advocates for divestment from fossil fuel companies may not be satisfied with this approach, but we believe that divestment paints with too broad a brush,” Bacow wrote.

McKibben said the University’s decision to commit to going carbon neutral by 2050 marked progress, but that its environmental impact pales in comparison to the University of Oxford’s decision Tuesday to fully divest from the fossil fuel industry. He said that now, in response, organizers must push even harder.

“I wish you all didn’t have to do it,” he said. “I wish we were having an all-out party like they are having virtually at Oxford today.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment beyond Bacow’s message to the faculty.

During Wednesday’s rally, speakers drew parallels between the global coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis.

Jeremy Ornstein ’23, a student organizer for Divest Harvard and a speaker at the virtual rally, urged his fellow organizers to remember the sense of community they felt when demonstrating at this year’s Harvard-Yale game, when hundreds of demonstrators stormed the field as part of a divestment protest. Some of the protesters were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, but a Connecticut judge later dismissed the charges.

Ornstein urged listeners to draw upon that sense of solidarity in responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We need a society that says ‘you’re sick, I’m sick, and I’m healthy, I’m gonna make sure you’re healthy,’” Ornstein said.

After the speeches, participants were placed into randomized breakout groups to discuss the “fight for climate justice in the time of COVID-19,” according to a post-rally press release issued by Divest Harvard. Participants in breakout rooms wrote letters to Harvard administrators and endowment managers, urging them to address climate justice and Harvard’s investment in the fossil fuel industry.

Caleb D. Schwartz ’20, an inactive Crimson multimedia editor and a press representative for Divest Harvard, said he was happy with the outcome of the virtual rally, which the group originally planned to take place in Harvard Yard.

“We would ideally be out there in Harvard Yard speaking, but I think this was a good alternative,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz said he believes Harvard’s decision to commit to carbon neutrality has prompted greater student engagement with Divest.

“I've actually had three conversations today with new people who want to join the group,” Schwartz said. “Unexpectedly Harvard's decision to commit to carbon neutrality in such a lackluster and irresponsible way is actually bringing more people to our group.”

Divest Harvard wrote in the press release that their calls for divestment will continue as the divestment movement enters a new chapter.

“Today marks a new moment in our campaign as we pave the way for investment in a more socially just and environmentally sustainable system,” the press release reads.

—Staff writer Ellen M. Burstein can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ellenburstein.

—Staff writer Michelle G. Kurilla can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @MichelleKurilla.

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