By Carl Denton and Jaden Deal, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard
The Yale Band marched around the field waving flags while 150 of us watched anxiously. Following weeks of planning, groups of Harvard and Yale divestment activists sat scattered throughout the stands, waiting for the signal to enter the field. Our minds raced: Was everyone ready? How would the police respond? Once we made it onto the field, there would be no going back.
The action, organized by Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition was among the largest-ever campus protests in support of fossil fuel divestment and cancellation of Puerto Rican debt. About 150 students and alumni from Harvard and Yale stormed the field at halftime of the 136th annual Harvard-Yale football game. Within a few minutes, hundreds of supporters had joined the action from the stands, as protesters chanted “out of the stands, onto the field!” The game was delayed by nearly an hour.
In the context of the national movement calling on universities and other institutions to divest their endowments from the fossil fuel industry, this moment marked a critical shift. Since 2012, our campaign, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, has been calling for Harvard to take responsibility for its role in perpetuating global climate injustice and to divest its multi-billion-dollar endowment from the fossil fuel companies creating the crisis.
Taking inspiration from the divestment movements against South African apartheid and the tobacco industry, our movement contends that if institutions want to combat the climate crisis, they cannot simultaneously profit from the very industries causing that crisis. Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane told the Harvard Crimson, “While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it.” But from where we stand, Harvard’s investments in the fossil fuel industry not only lend financial support to an industry at the very heart of global destruction — they add legitimacy to the endeavors of people who would rather profit personally than preserve the planet for the rest of us.
As students at two of the biggest Ivy League universities in the country, we occupy positions of privilege like few others in society. It is the least we can do to mobilize that privilege in service of those whose voices are systematically silenced. It’s time for the status quo to change. Harvard, Yale, and institutions like them must take responsibility for the ways their actions impact the world around them.
People watching or participating in this weekend’s act of civil disobedience told us that it inspired hope, and a sense that things might really change. Through it, we provided an avenue for students to become a part of a collective movement. Civil disobedience is meant to be disruptive, to draw attention, to empower people who might otherwise never imagine themselves to have power. The fight against injustice will not be led by yet more politicians or university administrators. It will be led by masses of people, coming together not to request change, but to create it.
Together with our co-organizers at the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition and our neighbors at the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, we find it unacceptable for powerful institutions like Harvard and Yale to profit in any way from the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable and systematically disenfranchised populations.
The fact that we don’t know exactly how much of the endowment is entangled in these industries is just as distressing. As of May 2019, Harvard disclosed only 1% of its endowment. When the University of California system announced its divestment, it revealed that $150 million of its $80-billion pot was being redistributed away from such companies. We believe that transparency shouldn’t come after the fact.
The support we’ve received from our fellow classmates, faculty, and alumni in the wake of Saturday’s action has opened up a new realm of possibilities. This is not “just another protest.” We see divestment — and, by extension, this weekend’s action — as one of the most immediate and tangible tactics that individuals can use to take action against the climate crisis, and hold the institutions around them accountable.
And we are not acting without a timeline. We demand that Harvard commit to full divestment — that is to say, fully disclose its holdings in the fossil fuel industry, divest its endowment of those stocks, and reinvest these funds to generate a more just and sustainable future — by Earth Day 2020. This date marks 50 years since the inception of Earth Day, established after the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill released millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean. It is also only 10 years from 2030, the date the IPCC projects as the last chance for global temperature rise to be kept below 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The question now is not whether divestment is right or wrong: The moral imperative is on our side. Rather, the question is one of political will. It is a question of whether our universities will choose to be on the right or the wrong side of history. And as the climate crisis and institutional complicity in it accelerates, the window of time in which any of us can take action to mitigate this suffering is rapidly shrinking.
This weekend’s action showed as never before the urgency that this issue holds for students and onlookers everywhere. There is no “right time” to call out destructive, immoral behavior. In the ever-widening shadow of the climate emergency, there is only the present.