News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Divestment Debate: Should Harvard Divest from Fossil Fuels?

| May 8, 2015

Should Harvard divest its financial holdings in fossil fuel companies to help address the climate change crisis? In the first Kennedy School public debate on this controversial issue, two prominent Harvard professors recently addressed that question, presenting arguments for and against joining the global divestment campaign.

“Divestment can be, if the movement grows—and it’s growing rapidly—an effective way to raise public awareness, create pressure for better energy policies, spark significant social change, and begin to break the stranglehold that fossil fuel companies have on our energy and political systems,” said James Engell, a professor English and of Comparative Literature at the College who has been active in Harvard Faculty for Divestment.

“Does divestment do that without the risk that the University’s mission in teaching and research will be seriously undermined?….That’s the central question,” countered University Professor Rebecca Henderson, citing the potential financial and political risks in doing so.  Harvard has more than 300 courses and “some of the best research on climate change,” as well as a strong commitment to “really aggressively taking down carbon emissions on the campus,” said Henderson, who co-chairs Harvard Business School’s Initiative for Business and the Environment.

Divestment “has stimulated strong views partly because it touches on one of the great issues of this generation as well as the generations that will follow: climate change,” said HKS professor Henry Lee in opening remarks at the standing-room-only event in Wiener Auditorium.  “One of the most valuable aspects of the Harvard experience is the opportunity to engage in debate on the major issues before our community, whether you define that community as the world, the country, Cambridge or this university,” he said.

Watch the Full Event:


Lee directs the Belfer Center’s Environment and Natural Resources Program, which co-sponsored the April 29 debate with the HKS Energy and Environment Professional Interest Council. Organizers said it was the first such debate at the Kennedy School and one of the few opportunities at the University to have an open debate on the hot topic of divestment.

Henderson and Engell (whose bios can be found on the Belfer event website) both called for a portfolio of political and personal actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to combat global warming. While they disagreed on the importance of full divestment from all fossil fuels—oil, natural gas and coal—as a means to accomplish that goal, the professors did agree on a significant step for the University to consider: targeted divestment from coal, the leading source of greenhouse gas emissions and human-caused climate change.

Coal accounts for 76 percent of carbon dioxide emissions from electric power generation and nearly 40 percent of total US energy-related emissions, according to the US Energy Information Administration. Coal—the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel—is responsible for almost 45 percent of carbon dioxide emissions worldwide. Burning coal is also a leading cause of smog, acid rain, and toxic air pollution, which can have serious effects on both human health and the environment.

Harvard University’s position on fossil fuel divestment, announced in an October 3, 2013 statement from President Drew Faust, is that it is not “warranted or wise” for an academic institution and that Harvard can best fight climate change through its research, teaching and low-carbon campus initiatives.

Activist groups of Harvard students, faculty and alumni have stepped up pressure on the University to divest its endowment assets from fossil fuel companies and invest instead in clean energy.  The campus environmental activist group Divest Harvard, started in 2012, has spearheaded the push for divestment. Since April, 2014, more than 250 members of Harvard Faculty for Divestment have signed an open letter to the University calling for divestment from fossil fuel corporations.

This spring Harvard Climate Week, April 6 to 10, showcased campus-wide research and policy events. On April 13, a major Presidential Panel on Climate Change at Sanders Theatre featured experts in science, politics, business, economics, and history, including Henderson. President Drew Faust, in opening remarks, said: “The challenge of climate change is profound. The risks it poses are dire. Confronting those dangers is among the paramount tasks of our time…. Universities have a crucial role to play: We act through our research, our educational programs, our embrace of sustainability on our campus, our engagement with the wider world.”

Proponents of fossil fuel divestment held their own Harvard Heat Week, including a six-day sit-in outside the Administration’s offices in Massachusetts Hall, a teach-in and other protest activities.

More than 200 institutions, including Stanford and Syracuse Universities, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the World Council of Churches, the Church of England and the UK’s Guardian newspaper group, have agreed to divest either from coal alone or fossil fuels of all types.

Both organizers and participants felt the HKS divestment debate provided an important opportunity for airing divergent divestment views. “The debate was a great step forward” in “engaging in open and honest conversations about fossil fuel divestment,” said HKS student Tomas Insua, a campus divestment activist who helped organize the event. “I hope we can have more discussions of this sort at a university-wide level, given the urgency and severity of the climate crisis."

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Divestment Debate: Should Harvard Divest from Fossil Fuels?

Science Journalist Cristine Russell moderated the HKS divestment debate. She is a senior fellow in the Environment and Natural Resources Program and an adjunct lecturer in public policy.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Russell, Cristine. “Divestment Debate: Should Harvard Divest from Fossil Fuels?.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, May 8, 2015.