Why We Must Divest From Fossil Fuels: A Student’s Open Letter to Harvard President Drew Faust

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The Nation

Why We Must Divest From Fossil Fuels: A Student’s Open Letter to Harvard President Drew Faust

The movement for fossil-fuel divestment has swelled to what an Oxford University study calls the fastest-growing divestment movement in history, one with the potential to shift the political ground beneath the fossil-fuel lobby’s feet. There are more than 500 campaigns globally—including on some 400 college and university campuses in the United States, along with city and state governments and major religious institutions. Ten colleges and more than twenty cities—including Seattle, San Francisco and, as it happens, Cambridge, Massachusetts—have committed to divest.

Back in October, Harvard University President and distinguished American historian Drew Gilpin Faust, having faced more than a year of increasing calls by students, faculty and almuni to divest from fossil fuels, released a statement in which she explained why Harvard would do no such thing, at least not on her watch. Reactions to her position—by critics ranging from climate activist Tim DeChristopher (now at Harvard Divinity School) and Columbia’s Todd Gitlin (an alum) to former Oberlin president and National Science Board member James Lawrence Powell, among others—pointed to its logical inconsistency, not to mention blindness to moral, political and economic facts. Nevertheless, as others have noted, Faust’s arguments have become the de facto orthodox positions of the anti-divestment crowd.

On campus, in Cambridge, the student-led Divest Harvard campaign (I’m involved with the alumni wing), has repeatedly invited Faust to engage in a public forum on divestment—and has repeatedly been rebuffed. So earlier this month, the students confronted Faust after a public speech, and captured the conversation on video. During the exchange, incredibly, Faust denied that the fossil-fuel industry obstructs progress on clean energy. The video made a stir—thanks to leading climate blogger Joe Romm, who demolished that assertion. Faust felt compelled to respond to the students in an e-mail, as reported by the student newspaper The Crimson. Needless to say, relations between the students and the president’s office are somewhat tense. The students—and their faculty and alumni supporters—are far from backing down or going away. If anything, they’re more resolved than ever to raise the pressure—and the stakes.

Into this steps a 27-year-old Harvard graduate student, Ben Franta, a member of Divest Harvard’s student board, with a qualitatively different kind of response to Faust: direct, personal, unsparing—and, I’ll add, principled and brave. Last month, Franta met privately with Faust in her office—not for the first time—to discuss divestment. Two days later, he wrote her an impassioned letter, which he shared with me and others, in which he rebutted her points one by one and appealed to her, again, for an open debate. She has not responded. The moment she gets up and speaks publicly about divestment from fossil fuels, she told Franta, it will end up on the front page of The New York Times.

And so Franta has decided to publish an open letter, based closely on that first one, and he asked me to post it here.

Franta, who grew up in rural Iowa, is working toward a PhD in applied physics—more specifically, as he describes it, focusing on “reducing the cost of solar energy by developing high-efficiency photovoltaics using industrially scalable methods.” In his recent meeting with Faust, she continued to extol Harvard’s programs in sustainability and energy research as the proper way forward. In response, he told her, speaking as one who works on solar energy at Harvard, such research simply isn’t enough. “Politics,” Franta says, “lies upstream of technology development.”

Franta’s open letter follows here. This is surely not the first time a sitting Harvard president has been schooled by a Harvard student—but it’s a moment worth recording for history.

* * *

March 19, 2014

Benjamin Franta
Gordon McKay Lab
9 Oxford St.
Cambridge, MA 02138

Dear President Faust,

I am writing to you today in the hope of generating a public discussion that is based on intellectual honesty and moral seriousness.

I will be direct in this letter. It does not imply a lack of respect. I believe it is best to work together, and the need for clarity is urgent.

Last month you and I met to discuss Harvard’s divestment from the fossil fuel business. We disagree on whether or not Harvard should continue to invest in fossil fuel corporations, but I am not concerned by disagreement per se. I am concerned by the possibility that you are not treating this issue with the honesty and seriousness that it deserves. I believe that possibility has troubling implications.

I wrote to you a month ago with the concerns in this letter. They are still unaddressed. It is important to address them, because they affect many people. I will explain the reasons for my concern.

To justify the university’s continued funding of the fossil fuel industry, you have provided a list of unsubstantiated beliefs in place of evidence-based arguments, both in your written statement on fossil fuel divestment and in subsequent conversations. Unsubstantiated beliefs will not suffice to protect our children and grandchildren from damages arising from planetary climate change.

The plan you have put forth as an alternative to divestment—that Harvard, through a strategy of shareholder activism, will induce fossil fuel companies to become clean energy companies—is a proposition that requires evidence to demonstrate its seriousness and feasibility. I am not aware of evidence to suggest that: 1) fossil fuel companies have any interest in becoming clean energy companies anytime soon, if ever; 2) that it is possible for such companies to become clean energy companies while maintaining fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders; 3) that shareholder activism is capable of inducing such fundamental shifts in business strategy; or 4) that Harvard, as an activist shareholder, has such power.

Your repeated preference of this plan indicates either that you are privy to evidence regarding its feasibility that others are not privy to, that you are naïve regarding the feasibility of this plan or that this plan is proposed cynically. If you do have special information that supports the feasibility of this plan, it should be made public. Without such evidence, there is no reason to believe that this plan is both serious and well informed.

The same need for evidence applies to your statement that divesting from fossil fuel companies will cause a significant loss of revenue for the University. This may very well be true, but, again, evidence to support that conclusion is needed. Various studies to date have indicated that divestment from fossil fuel companies need not result in significant financial losses. Do these studies not apply to Harvard’s endowment, in full or in part? Are there other losses of revenue that concern you besides investment returns, such as corporate and private donations? Or are your concerns less tangible?

It is right for you to act as a steward of Harvard’s financial health. However, when your statements run counter to the body of evidence, it is necessary to provide compelling evidence of your own. It is never enough to say, “Don’t kid yourself—divesting will hurt the University financially.” Calls for divestment are not made in jest. Climate change is and will be a matter of life and death for many. The lack of evidence brought to the table thus far by you and the rest of the Harvard Corporation, however, does suggest a lack of seriousness.

Other statements of yours indicate, to my mind, a lack of seriousness that is troubling, such as your suggestion to me during our last meeting that if Harvard divests from fossil fuels, the University will need to decide whether to divest from sugar. Surely you understand that fossil fuels and sugar are distinct in a number of fundamental ways. One of those ways, perhaps the main one, is that the production and consumption of sugar does not degrade the habitability of the planet for modern human civilization.

Another important difference between fossil fuels and sugar is that those who decide to use fossil fuels and immediately benefit from their use are not the same people who bear the risk for their use. When carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere, it requires 25-50 years to cause the bulk of its warming effect, which then affects every living thing on the globe. Thus, when we use fossil fuels today, our children and grandchildren bear damages as a result (along with everyone else’s children and grandchildren). These future damages are large, they are accumulating and they are unpaid for. Fossil fuel companies are particularly profitable today because no one is paying for these damages. None of these facts are secrets. Through investing in fossil fuels, Harvard seeks to profit, and does profit, from these future damages.

Your fear of a “slippery slope,” as you put it, in which divesting from fossil fuels leads to a campaign to divest from sugar, must be elaborated upon if it is to be used as a valid argument to maintain the status quo. The fear of a slippery slope can be used to counter any call for action in any area; it is not a valid argument unless there is evidence to show that taking one action will inevitably lead to another with costs that outweigh the benefits of the first action. We are not talking about divesting from sugar, or cats, or apples, even though cats scratch people and people choke on apples. We are talking about divesting from fossil fuels, because fossil fuels cause planetary climate change.

You assert that to cease investments in fossil fuel extraction would be tantamount to using the endowment as a “political weapon.” This presupposes both the political effectiveness of divestment and the neutrality of remaining invested in fossil fuel extraction. Of course, if an act of divestment would be politically effective, then remaining invested cannot be neutral.

In refusing to divest, Harvard is choosing to profit from future damages that create intergenerational and geographical inequity. This unnecessarily positions the endowment in conflict with the future welfare of our children and grandchildren. It is this status quo—not some hypothetical scenario—that is cause for offense and leads many to demand change.

You have asserted that because we unavoidably use fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives, we should not stop investing in them. It is unclear why this should be the case. If your argument is an appeal for self-consistency, you seem to imply that no repudiation of fossil fuel use should be undertaken while we unavoidably use them. This is clearly not what is happening in the world around us, and pursuing such a policy would be enormously naïve. The renewable energy research at Harvard is done using electricity from fossil fuels. The Office for Sustainability carries out its work using fossil fuels. Both are repudiations of fossil fuel use that use fossil fuels. Should we stop these activities because they violate your appeal for self-consistency? Or do you mean something else by your argument?

Fossil fuel use is unavoidable, because it is a large part of the energy mix today. We must become accustomed to taking steps away from fossil fuels and towards low-carbon energy sources even while we use fossil fuels in our day-to-day lives, because there does not seem to be another choice. The description of self-consistency you have laid out, in which Harvard must either fund the fossil fuel industry for a profit or isolate itself entirely from fossil fuels in every way, is not representative of reality.

It is entirely consistent to unavoidably use fossil fuels while carrying out low-carbon energy research to displace fossil fuels, and it is entirely consistent to unavoidably use fossil fuels while choosing not to invest in their continued dominance. If you truly think there is a case to be made regarding the inconsistency of divestment, then that case must be made more clearly.

Some of your arguments appear to be inconsistent with each other, and this concerns me because inconsistency can indicate a preference for convenience over the truth. You’ve asserted that if Harvard were to divest from fossil fuel companies, it would have “no” political impact because Harvard, you allege, is not sufficiently influential. At the same time, you’ve told me that you are unwilling to speak on these issues publicly because a discussion of fossil fuel divestment at Harvard might garner too much media attention. These statements give the impression that you are willing to both deny and invoke the influence of Harvard, even at the same time, in order to avoid taking action on this important problem. I think some clarity is required on this topic.

Finally, I am concerned that you are, perhaps, in denial or unaware of important political realities. Your recent denial of the effectiveness of fossil fuel companies in slowing the implementation of clean energy was surprising. I know that you have since indicated that you did not understand what was being discussed at the time. However, you have still not clarified what you understand regarding the political power of fossil fuel companies and the use of that power in our society.

If you have evidence to support the feasibility of your plan to change fossil fuel companies to clean energy companies, you must present it. And if you have evidence to support your assertion that divestment, even partial divestment, will significantly hurt the University financially, you must present it. And if you are going to use “slippery slope” and self-consistency arguments as reasons for inaction on a problem that will affect all of our descendants, then you must make those arguments more clearly.

Those calling for divestment have the right to do so, because the profit motive to exacerbate climate change at the expense of others—an activity that Harvard is now engaging in and endorsing—affects the welfare of their children, grandchildren and the generations that come after them. And the Harvard community has the right to discuss this issue openly with those who have decision-making power in this matter and those who are currently vetoing such calls. This includes, but might not be limited to, you and the other members of the Harvard Corporation.

As for me, after more than a year of unproductive, closed-door meetings with members of the Corporation, during which the same list of unsubstantiated beliefs was presented repeatedly to justify inaction on a problem that will affect all of our descendants, I believe that public debate and discussion are required to separate the sense from the nonsense. You have shown an eagerness to engage with the fossil fuel industry. I ask that you show the same eagerness to engage with members of your own Harvard community who are working to protect their children and grandchildren.

Climate change presents a long fight that will likely require generations of action. I believe we can make more progress by working together in the ways we are able rather than by dismissing others’ concerns. I cannot ask or expect that we will agree on every matter. All I can ask, for the sake of my descendants and those of others, is that you show both honesty and seriousness on this issue. Without those virtues from our leaders, our hope is greatly diminished.

At the end of the day, we are acting for our children and grandchildren and for the generations beyond that. When we choose convenience over truth, we ultimately slow progress, and future generations pay the price. They will not care about who won an argument on a particular day, and they will not care about the clever excuses we come up with for doing nothing. They will care about what was actually true and what we actually did on their behalf.

Sincerely,

Benjamin Franta

Wen Stephenson

Freelance journalist and climate activist Wen Stephenson, a former editor at The Atlantic and The Boston Globe, contributes frequently to Grist and has written about climate and culture for the Globe, The New York Times, The Nation and Slate. On Twitter: @wenstephenson

Benjamin Franta

Benjamin Franta is a PhD candidate in applied physics at Harvard University and a member of Divest Harvard’s student board.

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