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Harvard’s Fossil Fuel Divestment is a Hard-Fought, Symbolic Victory

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Harvard has finally divested from fossil fuels, in all but name.

Last Thursday, Harvard affiliates received what at first glance seemed like a pretty unremarkable email: another laundry list of University actions to combat climate change, this time with the subject “Climate Change: Update on Harvard Action.” But the discrete phrasing hid a shocking policy reversal: Harvard, after years of sparring with advocates, said it will allow its remaining investments in the fossil fuel industry to expire while avoiding new investments in the sector.

Though the term itself remained conspicuously unsaid, we read between the lines: our university is divesting.

We gladly welcome Harvard’s change of heart — we went through our own not too long ago. In his email announcing the decision, University President Lawrence S. Bacow chose to emphasize the practical reasons behind the policy shift, deeming fossil fuel investments not “prudent” in our decarbonizing economy. But along with these pragmatic concerns, we believe that divesting from fossil fuels has an important symbolic value.

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As we’ve opined in the past, symbols matter. Our investments matter. They showcase our ideals and speak to our moral character, allowing Harvard to put its money where its mouth is (like we did with the tobacco industry in the 1990s) or fail to do so (like with our reluctant and partial apartheid divestment). The endowment, as a symbol of our institutional values, is hence inherently political; Harvard’s decision to free itself from fossil fuel investments shows our commitment to reducing the extent and impact of climate change.

Embracing this symbolic importance of fossil fuel divestment means, to us, actually using the word divest. It also crucially means recognizing those who brought the movement to our campus — the activists and organizers who, for years, pushed relentlessly for a better Harvard, and got one. From lawsuits against the University to “Heat Weeks” featuring faculty and alumni, the student activism has proven dynamic and determined in its tactics, capable of reinventing itself for the sake of the cause. Now, less than two years after the iconic Harvard-Yale protest sparked national headlines, their efforts are only a few withering contracts away from fruition. We thank them effusively for getting us here.

Harvard’s recent decision is, therefore, a testament t0 the power of student activism. The wealthiest academic institution on our warming planet has been moved by the blood, sweat, handcuffing, and tears of young people.

Let this moment serve as a reminder to our fellow young people everywhere: Demand the change from your universities that you wish to see. If they should divest, press them firmly, and persistently — because they will be made to listen to you eventually.

And in that vein, we have a few more asks of the Harvard Management Corporation. They should clarify the timeline of when the fossil fuel contracts in “runoff mode” will finally be liquidated. And even once Harvard has completely divested from fossil fuels, the work of extracting the endowment from morally untenable investments is not over: As we have stated before, the Corporation must also let go of any investments, or the potential for future investments, in the prison-industrial complex, an instrument of racism and modern-day slavery. The tool of divestment must be used to square the endowment with these social imperatives of our times.

Still, we cannot understate the magnitude of the moment that has just arrived. A moment almost a decade of activism in the making; a moment deserving of more than the convoluted email we received.

To the activists who have driven this change: We are not reliant on the University to give this moment the symbolism it deserves. We must celebrate this victory for what it symbolizes for climate action, for the principles of activism, and for Harvard itself.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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