This week, the national fossil fuel divestment movement escalated, as student blockades popped up at Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis. By the end of the week, 8 students had been arrested across the two campuses, the first arrests since the fossil fuel divestment campaign launched nearly two years ago.
The skirmish at Harvard touched off Wednesday, where students organized as Divest Harvard have been pushing the university to get rid of the oil, gas, and coal holdings in its $33 billion endowment. Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, has dug in against Divest Harvard’s demands, even denying that the fossil fuel industry is blocking meaningful action to address climate change. Facing an administration that refuses to distance itself from the fossil fuel corporations driving climate crisis, Divest Harvard launched a blockade of President Faust’s office that lasted more than 24 hours. On Thursday morning, Harvard University police arrested undergraduate Brett Roche -- the first arrest in the national divestment movement. Roche’s arrest marks an increasingly hardline response from Harvard’s administrators, as the university demonstrates a willingness to use police force to defend investment in fossil fuel corporations.
Brett Roche may have been the first divestment activist arrested on campus this week, but he certainly wasn’t the last. This morning, Washington University in St. Louis joined Harvard in infamy: seven students were arrested as they attempted to deliver a letter to the university’s board of trustees. Just days before, WashU Students Against Peabody ended a historic 17-day sit-in which demanded that Greg Boyce, notorious CEO of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private coal company, be removed from the university’s board. During negotiations, Washington University chancellor Mark Wrighton flatly refused to respond to students demands. When asked to exercise leadership, he replied “I can, but I won’t.” Faced with an administration content to cozy up to fossil fuel interests, more than 100 students staged a peaceful sat-in outside Washington University’s board meeting under the watchful eyes of police, some of whom carried shields and riot gear. When a delegation of students attempted to enter the building to deliver a letter to Washington University’s board, they were arrested. All seven were charged with trespassing on their own campus.
The implications of this week of action are both scary and heartening. Novelist Margaret Atwood spoke to the scary, criticizing the administration's response as she received an award at Harvard yesterday: “Any society where arrest is preferable to open dialogue is a scary place.” Indeed, university administrators at both Harvard and Washington University appear to be so committed to the fossil fuel industry that they'll arrest their own students for speaking out.
On the hopeful side, the student divestment movement is finding its power. After two years of power-building and by-the-book advocacy, campus climate activists are proving that they have the courage to stand up to their administrators and the fossil fuel industry. Earlier in the school year, students at Harvard, Washington University, and dozens of other campuses worked with Rainforest Action Network to disrupt campus recruitment sessions organized by Bank of America and Citi, two of the largest financiers of the U.S. coal industry. Those actions, and the arrests this week, point to a rising tide of resistance that won’t be cowed by police response. A longer, deeper struggle is opening on campuses across the country, and administrators at the more than 300 universities with active divestment campaigns need to know that their chickens are coming home to roost. It's time to divest or expect resistance.
To support the Washington University in St. Louis students arrested this morning, call Chancellor Mark Wrighton at (314) 935-5100.
Tell him universities are for students, not for coal CEOs. Washington University needs to drop Peabody Energy so the school can get back to educating students, not arresting them.
Co-authored by Sima Atri, Benjamin Franta, Sidni Frederick, Ted Hamilton, Jacob Lipton, Chloe Maxmin, Brett Roche, Kelsey Skaggs, Henney Sullivan, Tyler VanValkenburg, Jacob Lipton, Zoë Onion, Olivia Kivel, and Canyon Woodward on behalf of Divest Harvard. This op-ed originally appeared on Stacy Clark's blog on Huffington Post.
This morning we began blocking the main entrance to Massachusetts Hall, which houses the office of Harvard University President Drew Faust and other top administrators. We are here to demand an open and transparent dialogue with the Harvard Corporation—Harvard's main governing body—on fossil fuel divestment. To date, President Faust and Harvard University have rejected the case for divestment and refused to engage in public dialogue about divestment and climate change. Alongside the 72% of Harvard undergraduates and 67% of Harvard Law students, as well as the students, faculty, and alumni of Divest Harvard, we refuse to accept our university's unwillingness to hold a public meeting on this critical issue.
We are here today because we believe in a better Harvard. We are here because it is our duty to act. We are here today because it is our moral responsibility as students to ensure that Harvard does not contribute to and profit from the problem but instead aligns its institutional actions and policies with the shared interests of society.
We take this action with the conviction that Harvard can, must, and will be a leader in responding to the climate crisis. We owe it to the world's less fortunate and future generations to lead the way to a livable planet.
Human-made climate change is already severely disrupting weather patterns and causing misery to those most vulnerable to the effects of drought, flooding, and famine. Despite the universal acknowledgment by scientists and world governments that drastic action is needed to address this problem, we continue to extract and burn carbon energy sources at an accelerating rate.
Unless we act swiftly to restructure our economy and to end our consumption of fossil fuels, the planet faces catastrophic disturbances in the very near future. The latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warns that we have less than 15 years to overhaul our energy economy, is the latest recognition that the time for bold and courageous action is upon us.
Harvard enjoys a privileged position. It is a global leader in research, thought, and policy, and its alumni, faculty, and administrators enjoy tremendous influence over our economy and political culture. Harvard has the moral authority to break the stranglehold of passivity when our governments are unable or unwilling to address climate change's impending menace. And even if Harvard were not a prominent institution, the moral imperative still exists to stop profiting from damage done to others. The fact that Harvard chooses to calculate profit from corporate activities that push damages onto others—including ourselves and our children—is intolerable, ultimately unsustainable, and must stop.
Harvard's divestment from the fossil fuel industry will accomplish two important goals. First, it will allow Harvard to retain the moral integrity of an institution purporting to care about a livable future. Today the Harvard community profits from fossil fuel investments because the true costs of oil, coal, and gas are borne by other communities. Communities close to extraction sites are being robbed of their health and communities on the frontlines of climate disasters are being robbed of their lives and cultures. Younger generations, including Harvard's own students, are being robbed of a chance at a livable future. It is unconscionable and illogical for us to continue supporting an industry that violates basic human values and the fundamental purpose of our own institution.
Second, divestment will send a strong message that our society can no longer tolerate business as usual with the fossil fuel industry. The corrupt political practices and shameful climate denial peddled by gas, oil, and coal companies have stood in the way of proactive energy policies for far too long. Harvard's wealth and influence bring with them a special responsibility to act, and this is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
As the university demonstrated when it divested from tobacco and partially divested from Apartheid, Harvard's endowment can be put into alignment with shared values. We are not asking our university to inject politics into its finances: we are asking it to stop sponsoring and profiting from climate change. By investing in fossil fuel companies, Harvard itself is responsible for their behavior. President Faust's recent announcement that Harvard will sign onto the non-binding Principles for Responsible Investment and the Carbon Disclosure Project implicitly recognizes that the university cannot ignore its social responsibility when it comes to its investments and climate change.
As over one hundred Harvard faculty argued in their letter to President Faust earlier this month, it is far too late for business as usual and statements to continue that do not commit the university to action. The governing Corporation's refusal to hold an open meeting on the issue of divestment—as well as the President's recent denial that fossil fuel companies prevent political action on global warming and a Corporation member's suggestion that Harvard students thank BP for its energy practices—betray a disconcerting lack of understanding and urgency with respect to the impending risk of climate disaster.
We stand in solidarity with students and activists around the world who are raising their voices to demand that our institutions and leaders reject the carbon economy and begin aggressive action toward a greener future. We welcome members of the Harvard community and the public to our peaceful gathering in front of Massachusetts Hall. And we invite President Faust and the Harvard Corporation to join us in an open and transparent meeting to discuss the divestment of Harvard's endowment from the fossil fuel industry.
The world, and Harvard as part of it, cannot wait any longer.
This is a guest blog by students Camila Bustos (Brown University) and Alli Welton (Harvard University).
Earlier this month, we traveled from our universities in New England down to Charlotte, NC to attend Bank of America’s annual shareholder meeting with Rainforest Action Network. At the end of the school year, the trip meant skipping exams and ignoring final paper deadlines that would come back to bite us later--but we knew it was worth it. The meeting gave us the opportunity to look straight into the eyes of a person who has the power to cripple the coal industry: Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan--and ask him to help us.
In his opening remarks at the meeting, Moynihan prided himself on the Bank’s $50 billion commitment to the environment. Later on that morning, however, we witnessed Mr. Moynihan dodge question after question regarding the Bank’s role as the number one lender to the coal industry.
Frontline community members spoke up with devastating stories about the cancers their community had struggled with in the shadow of coal-fired power plants, the threats to their homes and drinking water posed by new strip mines and coal export terminals. Religious leaders reminded Moynihan of his moral conscience and his responsibility to other inhabitants of this earth. Many speakers pointed out the contradiction between Bank of America’s environmental commitment and its coal financing policies. Other shareholders at the meeting heard our voices, and began mentioning climate change within their own questions about other topics such as the Bank’s foreclosure practices, executive pay, or campaign contribution disclosures. Mr. Moynihan was clearly uncomfortable when faced with the people directly impacted by his Bank’s support of the coal industry, but he dismissed most of their questions.
At the end of the meeting, it was our turn to speak. We could tell that, by this point, Mr. Moynihan had heard enough about climate change. We brought a message with us, however, that he had not heard:
“Students are tremendously concerned about climate change, and we do NOT want to work for companies like Bank of America if they are funding our destruction. We and students at 80 other colleges and universities have pledged to disrupt your recruitment sessions on our campuses until you commit to phasing out your loans to the coal industry.”
Finally, we had caught Bank of America’s attention. The moment we announced the pledges, Board members spun around in their chairs to stare at us. They heard how our generation will not stand in silence as the massive burden of climate change continues to fall on our backs. They heard how we are mobilizing to fight back, running fossil fuel divestment campaigns on hundreds of campuses across the country. They heard that we are standing in solidarity with the frontline communities whose homes and lives have already been threatened by the coal industry, and that we will be standing in Bank of America’s way if they come to our campuses next fall to recruit new employees whose work would continue aggravating the climate crisis.
Mr. Moynihan responded quickly to our questions. “We have already successfully recruited at your school,” he said, and repeated his talking point about the Bank’s $50 billion commitment to the environment. We had already seen, though, that the Board was visibly disconcerted by the pledge.
We know that we have found a pressure point, and we are prepared to leverage our power over the Bank next fall. We call on other students across the country to join us by signing the pledge and making it clear to Bank of America that, if they expect us to join their workforce and to provide them with business in the future, they need to do a better job of addressing our generation’s concerns about climate change and the human rights abuses perpetuated by the coal industry.