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As the World Moves Forward on Climate, Powerful Institutions Lag Behind

Roughly a decade after students across college campuses first sounded the alarm about investing in fossil fuels, divestment remains the single most powerful litmus test for climate action.

Students demanding that Harvard University divest from fossil fuels block the entrance to University Hall on the school's campus in Cambridge, MA on Mar. 28, 2017. (Photo: Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Students demanding that Harvard University divest from fossil fuels block the entrance to University Hall on the school's campus in Cambridge, MA on Mar. 28, 2017. (Photo: Keith Bedford/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Last Thursday on the 51st anniversary of Earth Day, the United States and nations around the world made historic commitments to combat the single greatest threat humanity has ever faced and the greatest test of our ability to take meaningful collective action: the climate crisis. President Biden announced that the United States—the world's greatest historical carbon dioxide emitter—would aim to cut its greenhouse gas emissions in half from 2005 levels within the next nine years, a period critical for avoiding dangerous levels of warming according to top climate scientists. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Europe would strive to become the world's "first climate-neutral continent," while Japan, Canada, and Brazil followed suit in laying out more ambitious goals for decarbonization.

The unprecedented commitments to slashing greenhouse gas emissions pledged by world leaders put places like Harvard University, which refuses to take the baseline step of divesting its nearly $42 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry, to shame.

The day highlighted the immense progress made by the climate movement and particularly, by young people, in elevating the climate crisis to the forefront of public consciousness and making it unaffordable for politicians to further delay climate action. But it also highlighted the inertia and entrenched corporate interests climate activists continue to face: As the world moves forward, some of our most powerful and moneyed institutions are lagging behind.

The unprecedented commitments to slashing greenhouse gas emissions pledged by world leaders put places like Harvard University, which refuses to take the baseline step of divesting its nearly $42 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry, to shame. Importantly, these commitments were far from perfect. Seeing them through and strengthening them will likely require the same level of mass mobilization and concerted political action that made them possible in the first place. Even so, they are a crucial starting point. As the United States and the international community take such pivotal steps toward a just transition to a clean energy economy, they make it abundantly clear that the institutions still holding out against a fossil fuel-free future will go down on the wrong side of history.

Every day, the window of time these institutions have to align themselves with the right side of history narrows. As I have written before, I have always hoped to see my university, Harvard, lead the movement for a just and sustainable future. Now, I merely hope it will follow in the footsteps of so many of its peer institutions, fellow investors, and elected officials who have cut ties to the fossil fuel industry, showing the level of foresight and courage its reputation demands.

Roughly a decade after students across college campuses first sounded the alarm about investing in fossil fuels, divestment remains the single most powerful litmus test for climate action. For decades, fossil fuel companies have sought to manipulate public opinion against climate science, pay off politicians to protect its calamitous interests, and sustain a core business model at fundamental odds with protecting our planet, our communities, and our collective futures. That remains the case as much today as it was decades ago—the difference being only that these companies' greenwashing tactics have grown more sophisticated.

Rather than slow the rising tide of divestment commitments, the Covid-19 pandemic has only seemed to accelerate it. Major pension funds, universities, and foundations have all committed to or completed processes of divesting from fossil fuel companies in the past year. Some, like New York State's pension fund and Yale University, have created principles forbidding investment in companies without clear plans or progress toward decarbonization. And even the world's largest asset manager and a frequent target of climate activists, BlackRock, has been forced to reckon with the industry's striking decline, recognizing the now-overwhelming financial case for divestment in private reports. Whether for the sake of people and the planet or merely their pocketbooks, investors increasingly don't trust fossil fuel companies with their funds. These companies know it and, rightly so, they're terrified of the divestment movement as a result.

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Yet some institutions like Harvard continue to invest in Big Oil, flying in the face of our political and economic climate and even, in some cases, the law. They also continue working directly with the industry, allowing companies notorious for attacking their own climate scientists to sponsor research that could shape future climate policy and maintain an invisible voice in the room of top decision-makers. And for that, they'll risk paying a steep price. Along with failing to reap the financial rewards that come with investing in a just transition, they'll lose immense credibility—at least, whatever credibility they retain after years of dismissing calls for action from overwhelming numbers of community members and the broader public. In some ways, that's a much greater loss, harder to recover from than poor financial returns.

So long as my peers and I represent the fastest-growing market of voters, consumers, and community members, the extinction of today's fossil fueled-economy is inevitable.

Last Earth Day, I co-authored a piece titled "It's time to let the fossil fuel industry die." This Earth Day, I feel confident that the industry—at least, as we know it today—is on its deathbed. My peers and I know the system will keep changing to hold major corporate polluters accountable and advance a rapid, socially just transition to societal decarbonization. We also know that the institutions who refuse to heed our calls for action will be left behind. How can we be so sure? Because we know that we, the young people powering the divestment movement and making climate justice the single most defining issue of our time, are not going anywhere.

Right now, these institutions still have a choice over what role they want to have in a just and sustainable future. With the vast resources a place like Harvard has at its disposal, it can easily become a vehicle for this future. Without a change in course, however, it will just as easily become a relic of it.

The times are changing without or without our most powerful institutions. So long as my peers and I represent the fastest-growing market of voters, consumers, and community members, the extinction of today's fossil fueled-economy is inevitable. Our futures can't afford anything less.

To all of the institutions currently failing us, trust me when I tell you that the time to divest is now. In another few years or perhaps, just another 365 days by the next Earth Day, the opportunity to divest while it still counts—for your morals and your money—may have already disappeared.

Ilana Cohen

Ilana Cohen is an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard.

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