One day in November prior to confinement due to the pandemic, a group of students took to the soccer field in the most anticipated match of the season between Yale and Harvard. For an hour they interrupted the game, which was aired on cable television, in protest at the multi-million dollar investment of their respective universities in the fossil fuel industry. At the height of the protest, 500 people were occupying the field. Several students were arrested. Among them was Manny Rutinel, a 26-year-old law student at Yale. “They accused us of public disorder, but in the end they dropped the charges because of the tremendous national support we received, they recognized that it was an important issue, that we were a handful of non-violent students who believed that Harvard and Yale should do more about the climate and in the divestment of fossil fuels “.
On the Saturday of the game, Jade Woods, a political science student at Harvard, knew that this was also her battle and joined the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard movement. The student campaign, launched since 2012, this September achieved its goal after nine years of mobilizing students, alumni and teachers: to force one of the richest and most influential universities in the world to abandon its colossal investment of 42,000 million dollars (36,335 million euros) in the fossil fuel industry. In a letter published on its website on September 9, the president of the university, Lawrence Bacow, announced it succinctly: “Given the need to decarbonize the economy and our responsibility as fiduciaries to make investment decisions that support our teaching and research mission We do not believe that these investments are prudent. ”
The word ‘prudent’ has been one of the most valuable findings in the students’ fight, as it has managed to break the silence and the refusal of the university center for years and has lit the wick of the divestment in oil, gas and coal of others powerful academic centers in the country. In March 2021, activists filed a legal complaint against their own university with the Massachusetts prosecutor, arguing that the massive investment was not only immoral because it compromised the future of its students. “We realized that it was also illegal, and this argument could be applied to all universities in the country,” Ilana Cohen, one of the young organizers of the movement, explained enthusiastically at an online press conference held after the announcement of University.
It was Ted Hamilton, an alumnus of Harvard Law and today a lawyer at the Climate Defense Project organization, dedicated to supporting climate activists, who helped put together the legal case. It alleged that Harvard, as a non-profit institution, is required by state law to have “prudent” investments, always seeking the interest of its main beneficiaries (in this case, students). And they stressed that investing in an industry that contributes to climate change implies a violation of the “fiduciary duty” of the institution.
This duty refers to the main source of income of the university, an endowment called endowment, very common in American universities and in general in Anglo-Saxon countries, which invests the money from the donations and grants it receives in safe financial products to pay for scholarships, training, support for the brightest students or research projects. Harvard has the largest endowment of the universities of the United States.
“Here a fundamental financial aspect is being taken into account. The Harvard decision recognizes that the best way to protect that investment and have secure returns is to divest from fossil fuels. In 1980, this sector represented 28% of the Standard & Poors index (one of the most important stock indices in the United States), today it represents 2% “, explained Tom Sanzillo, financial director of the Institute for Energy Economics.
One of the strongest voices on the decision of this university has been the environmental activist and writer Bill Mckibben, creator in 2008 of the global divestment movement 350.org, which so far has managed to get 1,339 institutions around the world to withdraw their money of fossil fuels, which represents 14.68 trillion dollars (12.7 trillion euros). “This is an important moment, as it was when the Rockefeller Foundation came out, or Ireland, or when New York City did. Now Harvard has left others without the possibility of hiding,” he told reporters.
Help from alumni
Like volunteer attorney Ted Hamilton, dozens of alumni have helped students stay in protest over the years. “They have written petitions, advised, have built campaigns, organized events. It is precisely because people have continued to appear because of what we have gained,” said Anna Santoleri, today an educator for open spaces, in the meeting with the press. This former student entered the campaign in 2014. “It was six in the morning, I put on two pairs of pants before leaving the house. It was winter in Boston and it was freezing. I went to a demonstration, there were 20 people and I thought: where? Is everyone here? That’s where it started for me. I didn’t want to be one of those missing people. ”
In 2020, Isha Sangani also became involved in the student climate movement, who had just started her Computer Science degree at Harvard. This 19-year-old student remembers the fires of 2017, when the record for temperature and aridity was broken in her native Washington state, in the west of the country. “When a good friend spent two weeks in the hospital because of the smoke, I realized that climate change is already here, that it is serious and that it is not going anywhere.”
Some activists believe that Harvard’s announcement cannot be understood without placing it in a favorable political context in the United States, with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress that is increasing the climate ambition of the country with more historical responsibility for global warming.
The support of public figures like Al Gore and other Harvard alumni who, like Main State Senator Chloe Maxmin, now occupy positions of power, is another clue to why now, after a decade on the warpath , the student movement has been strong enough to make the university give way.
The domino effect of the Harvard decision has already begun. Within a single week of the announcement, Boston University and the University of Minnesota announced that they were pulling out of fossil fuels. Now all eyes are on Princeton and Yale. Lynne Archibald, an alumnus of the university and activist in the Divest Princeton campaign, regrets that the institution is hosting funded research programs by companies such as the oil companies British Petroleum (BP) or ExxonMobil, which lead to a “clear conflict of interest” when preparing studies on possible solutions to the climate crisis. “No one would accept McDonald’s funding an obesity study or Philip Morris funding lung cancer solutions,” Archibald maintains. “Those green energy research programs funded by fossil fuel companies produce studies that focus on hydrogen, natural gas or carbon sequestration – all of which allow those same companies to continue operating.”