Over a hundred Harvard University faculty members have signed a letter demanding that the Harvard Corporation divest completely from the fossil fuel industry. The Harvard Faculty Divest letter comes on the heels of an email from Harvard University President Drew Faust to the Harvard community with the subject line, “Confronting climate change.” The email states that Harvard supports academic research on climate change; the University is working toward reducing energy consumption and greenhouse gases, based on goals set in 2008; and the University has signed on to a number of projects related to sustainable investment. The email also states the Harvard Corporation’s position that “divestment from the fossil fuel industry would not be wise or effective as a means for the University to advance progress towards addressing climate change.” These platitudes did not satisfy Harvard Faculty Divest.

Climate change is a civil rights issue.* As Harvard Faculty Divest points out, “[e]xtreme weather, rising levels of acidified oceans, reductions in biodiversity, and major threats to human health” all have a disproportionate impact on the poor. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), impoverished societies develop numerous health problems due to intense heat waves and fires, under-nutrition from decreased food production, and higher risks of food- and water-borne diseases. The IPCC released a report on March 31, 2014 that includes a 57-page chapter on “Livelihoods and Poverty.” The report asserts that climate change will exacerbate already existing inequalities. Though both males and females adopt additional workloads in response to extreme events and disasters, women add this work on top of existing labor and caring duties (p. 13). Men, too, suffer from occupational hazards, such as heat death due to kidney failure (p. 13). The IPCC reports that groups including children, the elderly, socially isolated individuals, and indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately as a result of climate-related disasters (p. 14).

Many question the economic sense of divestment, saying that “selling shares in a coal company doesn’t actually deprive the firm of any financial resources.” Yet proponents acknowledge economic futility and often frame the issue in moral and social terms. Harvard Faculty Divest draws support from the University’s past actions: “[i]t was never the intention of Harvard’s South African or tobacco related divestments to eliminate industries,” but “[i]nstead, divestment aims to expose corporate attitudes and change corporate behavior.” Harvard Kennedy School Professor Robert N. Stavins pushes back on this logic: “[v]iewing [divestment] as a moral crusade, I fear, will only play into and exacerbate the terrible political polarization already paralyzing Washington.”

Framing divestment as a moral, political, social, or economic question misses the point about the widespread havoc climate change wreaks on disenfranchised persons. In her email, University President Faust mentions research, statistics, and “best-practice guidelines”; she does not mention that around the world, people are losing their homes and food supplies, forced to work in sweltering conditions, and developing deadly health conditions stemming from climate change and increasingly frequent natural disasters. According to the EPA, environmental justice “will be achieved when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” The Harvard Corporation must acknowledge and take action to correct its own affirmative contribution to inequality.

*See the upcoming CRCL Volume 49 for “Addressing Poverty and Pollution: California’s SB 535 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund” by Vien Truong.