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The Problems with Divest: What Environmentalism Can Do Better

By William A. McConnell, Contributing Writer
William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

Divest Harvard is a useful microcosm of the modern environmental movement that I think has a lot to work on. At two crucial turns the movement lets me down.

First, it abandons the simple decision-making framework of cost and benefit in favor of panicked alarmism, leading to its own misguided mission. Listen to any divest protest or mainstream environmentalist messaging, and it is impossible to avoid the common idea that climate change is the “single most important issue” of today, and a future catastrophe waiting to destroy us.

From this starting point, divestment mimics a common theme in modern environmentalism: fixating on a particular course of action not so much because it is a clear effector of positive change but because it symbolically looks like environmentalism. The ideas born of this strategy represent such a small subset of the potential steps we can take towards addressing climate change that it is no surprise that they are rarely compelling — take plastic recycling, and bans on plastic bags as examples. If they are symbolically forceful it is the wrong symbol, one that says we are committed to optics before reason.

Second, the Divest movement also embodies the uncooperative and unproductive political strategy that comes from this kind of bogeyman-environmentalism. Blockading University offices, interrupting speaking events, and demanding rather than questioning, the Divest movement almost prides itself in its combativeness. It persists in making divestment out to be a moral choice with just one right answer, and will not budge from its firm stance within this binary framework. In the larger environmental movement, this same with us or against us mentality has pushed our political options to either near denialism or full prioritization, neither of which seems to be the optimal path forward.

In order to avoid repeating these mistakes of its past, the environmentalism movement needs to fundamentally recast the climate change crisis in the following terms. First, it is a crisis no less earthly than that of health care or criminal justice. In fact, the most recent comprehensive study assessing the increased costs of climate change, approximates an annual $224 billion additional cost to the U.S. economy by 2090 if we continue on our current emissions trajectory. This $224 billion figure is a far cry from warnings of an “existential crisis.” As a spot check, it barely reaches half of the estimated cost of the opioid crisis.

The climate change crisis is also not out of the ordinary in a second sense: Like most difficult problems, there are a range of strategies to move forward with, all of which have pros and cons. A carbon tax would reduce carbon emissions, but at the same time it stunts economic productivity. Adopting the Paris climate accord would limit global warming to a few degrees Celsius, but also be incredibly costly — excessively so, according to one paper by a Nobel Prize winner. The solutions we adopt should maximize value, striking a balance between the economic and social costs of enacting policies, and those of living with some of the effects of climate change.

An environmentalist movement grounded in this outlook would see vast improvements in its two current weaknesses.

It would first learn to look beyond the basic symbolism of possible approaches and embrace that there are many different arguments for different tradeoffs. It wouldn’t take much of this thinking to see why divestment doesn’t make sense. On the one hand, Harvard can bear the financial handicap that divestment places on the people managing the endowment. On the other hand, Harvard can also participate in the global climate change fight by leveraging its position as a leading research institution to explore vital new energy science, or by educating future visionaries about these problems. If we compare these two options, I would bet that Harvard can accomplish a lot more by acting like the university that it is than the fiscal policy maker that it is not.

Second, the movement would cast aside the black and white moralism that drowns its political rhetoric — after all, since when has any fiscal policy decision been a clear cut moral issue — and adopt a more sensible political strategy.

This is especially important when all the best solutions within this framework require national and even global political action. Grassroots approaches like consumer energy-saving and recycling or institutional divestment will struggle to have an impact because of the inevitable lack of full participation. There’s nothing wrong with accepting that people won’t all become vegetarian, and the world’s investors won’t all divest from fossil fuels.

Adapting its political strategy to these realities, the movement would then do good to ally with the 38 percent of Americans who see climate change as “a major problem but not a crisis,” or the 15 percent who see it as “a minor problem.” It should appeal to them with more accessible and unemotional rationales that respect their view of climate change as just one of the many issues worth addressing. Show them why some investments in clean energy will have greater return than investment in higher education, or prison reform, or healthcare.

Passion is fine, and so is speaking up loudly. The efforts up to this point have brought, at the very least, due attention to a very real problem. To move forward now, the environmentalism movement needs to temper the alarmism it has fostered, seek rational solutions, and carry them tactfully to the political sphere.

William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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