Harvard University announces divestment from fossil fuels

What this announcement means for Dalhousie and the world

In a major victory for the divestment movement at universities in North America, Harvard University has announced it will no longer invest in fossil fuels.  

Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, announced on Sept. 9 that the school’s endowment, valued at $42 billion, will divest from all fossil fuel holdings. This would make Harvard the richest university to divest from fossil fuels if they follow through on the announcement. 

This comes after over a decade of activism from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, one of many campus divest groups around the world. Divestment is the act of selling shares in a financial holding so you are no longer invested in that holding, campus divest groups demand their universities divest from fossil fuel companies that are contributing to the climate crisis. 

Rosie Bleyer, a campaigner with Divest-Dal –– the group has no hierarchical leadership structure, all members are campaigners –– and third-year environmental science student, sees  Harvard’s divestment as a big step for divestment movements at all Universities. “It’s really exciting to hear that Harvard has committed to divestment, I think it’s honestly a bit of a game-changer,” she said.  

Setting an example 

At a Divest-Invest leaders press conference on Sept. 15, many pro-divestment organizers voiced their hopes that Harvard’s decision would set an example for other institutions around the world. Divest-Invest is a global network of people and organizations committed to divestment from fossil fuels and reinvestment in a greener economy.  

“If divestment can happen for Harvard University, with an endowment the size of a small nation, then other universities, state governments and powerful actors have no excuse,” said Isa Flores-Jones at the press conference, an alumna of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard. 

Bill McKibbon, co-founder of 350.org, a global movement that campaigns against fossil fuels, said after Harvard’s divestment, other universities will have “no place to hide.”  

Morgan Whitten, another Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard organizer who spoke at the leaders conference, said, “Harvard didn’t lead, it conceded. Whether there was a ‘final blow’ is beside the point –– it was the force of years of zealous campaigning and unrelenting pressure that pushed them over the edge.”  

Harvard and Dalhousie  

Divest-Dal is our campus equivalent of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard. This is a group of students, alumni, and community members who have been advocating for Dalhousie to eliminate its investments in the fossil fuel industry since 2013.  

In 2014, Dalhousie released an investment committee report to the Board of Governors on Fossil Fuel Divestment arguing against divestment. This report cited Harvard as an example of a university that hadn’t divested. 

 “The university outlined that, while it is important to address climate change, it did not feel that divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise,” the report said.  

The Dalhousie investment committee released another report in February 2019, the “Fossil Fuel Investment Review.” Here, Dalhousie continued arguing against divestment, saying investing in green companies alongside fossil fuels was a better plan. They once again cited Harvard as a school that had “rejected divestment.” 

With the recent news from Harvard, Bleyer said “that argument kind of falls by the wayside.”  

“If an institution the size and scope of Harvard can [divest], Dal ought to,” said Rob Tremayne, another campaigner with Divest Dal, also a third-year sustainability and philosophy student. 

Since that 2019 report, Dalhousie has made no official announcements regarding investment in fossil fuels. As of 2021, Dalhousie holds shares in fossil fuel companies like Suncor, Husky Energy, TC Energy, Parkland Fuel, Canadian Natural Resources and Cenovus Energy. The full list of Dalhousie endowment investments for 2021 can be found on Dalhousie’s Treasury and Investments page, at dal.ca/dept/treasury-investments. 

Divest-Dal’s revival  

According to Bleyer, Divest-Dal is working on rebuilding its membership. The group’s activities dwindled over the last year because of the pandemic, she said.  

On Sept. 23, Divest-Dal hosted a poster making event on campus for the Sept. 24 School Strike for Climate Change. The event also served as a way to gauge interest in Divest-Dal, Bleyer said.  

“Right now we’re just really focusing on gaining some traction on campus,” Bleyer said. “The turnout is really amazing. We had this idea of less than a week ago, to get this all set up. So seeing all these people here is honestly shocking, and really, really motivating.” 

After seeing students come out to their first event, Bleyer said “this is just the beginning” of Divest-Dal’s in-person planning for this year.  

Legal action and Harvard’s divestment 

Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard filed a legal complaint with the Massachusetts state attorney general back in March, arguing Harvard’s fossil fuel investments violated state laws surrounding the management of institutional funds

Specifically, the legal complaint argued that Harvard was breaching state laws that require institutions to invest in a way that incorporates the university’s charitable purposes. By investing in fossil fuels, the complaint argued, Harvard was negatively affecting the world at large, meaning it was also affecting its physical and financial future.  

At the Divest-Invest conference, Ilana Cohen, the organizer of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, said this legal approach was “potentially key to the victory.” She hopes that similar complaints can be used to uplift other divestment movements.  

Divest-Dal hasn’t taken the legal route yet, “we’re hoping to bring Dal with us willingly, but I think legal action is definitely a tool we have at our disposal, because if nothing happens when we’re asking nicely we’ll ask less nicely,” said Tremayne. He said he was unsure of what that legal route might look like in Nova Scotia. 

Divestment and timing 

Divestment can’t come soon enough for McKibben, who said at the conference “this day comes too late to save the people who died in Hurricane Ida, or to save the forests of the West that have gone up in the last six months, or, frankly, to save the people who will perish in the years ahead, but it’s not too late to be a huge help in doing what we still can.”  

For McKibben, divestment helps to fight the “hypocrisy of an institution that in some classes is teaching its students about the wrongdoings and ethical implications of the oil sands or oil spills, and that same institution receiving money from those companies.”  

In his announcement on Sept. 9, Harvard President Bacow said “given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make long-term investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission, we do not believe such investments are prudent.”  

“Those in charge of Dalhousie’s investments, they have that responsibility to look to the future and the longevity of the fund, and they’re not doing so by clinging to the past of the oil and gas industry,” said Tremayne. 

Dalhousie did not respond to an interview request regarding divestment for this story. 

  • With files from Adam Inniss, News Editor and Lane Harrison, Editor-in-Chief 

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Taylor Adams

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