Momentum on Fossil Fuel Divestment Grows as Harvard Professors, Desmond Tutu Call for Action
Momentum is growing in the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies. On Thursday, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu called for an anti-apartheid-style boycott and disinvestment campaign against the industry for its role in driving climate change. Meanwhile, nearly 100 members of the faculty at Harvard University released an open letter calling on the Ivy League school to sell off its interests in oil, gas and coal companies. "If the Corporation regards divestment as 'political,' then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them," wrote the professors. "Slavery was once an investment issue, as were apartheid and the harm caused by smoking." Harvard has the largest university endowment in the country, worth more than $32 billion. We speak to James Anderson, professor of chemistry and Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. He is one of the signatories to the letter urging Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry. He has done groundbreaking work exposing the link between climate change and ozone loss. We also speak to Jamie Henn, co-founder of the climate change-focused organization, 350.org.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Momentum is growing in the movement to divest from fossil fuel companies. On Thursday, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu voiced his support for an anti-apartheid-style boycott and divestment campaign against the industry for its role in driving climate change. In an article published in The Guardian, Tutu wrote, "People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies." Tutu went on to write, quote, "We can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry." Last year, Desmond Tutu appeared in a video backing the fossil fuel divestment campaign.
DESMOND TUTU: The divestment movement played a key role in helping liberate South Africa. The corporations understood the logic of money, even when they weren’t swayed by the dictates of morality. Climate change is a deeply moral issue, too, of course. Here in Africa, we see the dreadful suffering of people from worsening drought, from rising food prices, from floods, even though they’ve done nothing to cause the situation. Once again, we can join together as a world and put pressure where it counts.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In other divestment news, nearly 100 members of the faculty at Harvard University released an open letter Thursday calling on the Ivy League school to sell off its interests in oil, gas and coal companies. Harvard has the largest university endowment in the country, worth over $32 billion. The Harvard faculty letter was published just three days after the university’s president, Drew Faust, rejected earlier calls to divest from fossil fuel firms. Instead, Faust announced the school would become a signatory to the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Investment.
AMY GOODMAN: In the letter, the professors write, quote, "If the Corporation regards divestment as 'political,' then its continued investment is a similarly political act, one that finances present corporate activities and calculates profit from them.
"The only way to remain 'neutral' in such circumstances is to bracket ethical principles even while being deeply concerned about consequences. Slavery was once an investment issue, as were apartheid and the harm caused by smoking," the Harvard professors wrote.
Well, to talk more about the disinvestment movement, we’re joined by two guests. James Aronson [sic] is professor of chemistry and Earth and—James Anderson is professor of chemistry and Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University, one of the signatories to the letter urging Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry. He has done groundbreaking work exposing the link between climate change and ozone loss. He’s joining us from Harvard’s campus. And with us in Washington, D.C., Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org.
Professor Anderson, why don’t you begin? Talk about why you signed this letter and what exactly it says.
JAMES ANDERSON: Well, I signed the letter because this fossil fuel question is unique in many ways. First, the combustion of fossil fuels has and will continue to bring serious and irreversible change to the structure of the Earth’s climate. And second, the fossil fuel industry has and will continue to provide very significant misinformation about this problem to the general public. A third issue revolves around leadership that I believe all universities should execute, and that was best captured, really, when President Bok divesting from the tobacco industry. And Harvard responded similarly to the apartheid question. And in the case of climate change and its relation to energy, this is the most serious problem facing this and subsequent generations. And so, I believe it’s crucially important for universities to step forward and exhibit leadership, because if they don’t, who will? The government is now crippled by both misinformation and special interests, and in many regards, the business industry should not necessarily be expected—although we would hope they would—to exhibit leadership in this matter.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor Anderson, could you talk about some of the research that you’ve done, especially in terms of the issue of water vapor in the stratosphere and its impact on climate change?
JAMES ANDERSON: Yes, well, my research, early on, addressed the question of ozone loss. And we built instruments that flew over in the U-2 spy plane over the Antarctic that established the cause for the Antarctic hole, or dramatic loss of ozone over the Antarctic. And then, similarly, we did research over the Arctic demonstrating that the same chemistry is occurring over the Arctic, except there was a fundamental difference. And that is that because the Arctic stratosphere is a little warmer than the Antarctic, we discovered that it was not these ice crystals that were executing the key chemical reactions converting nonreactive chlorine to the free radical form that attacks ozone, but rather simple, ubiquitous water sulfate aerosols. And at the time—and this was in 2001, 2002—we saw this as an academically interesting point that this chemistry was sensitive not just to temperature, but to water. But then in 2008, 2009, we discovered that severe storms over the United States, or even moderate storms, are injecting water deep into the stratosphere over the U.S. in the summer. And this would instigate exactly the same chemistry that is destroying ozone over the Antarctic and Arctic in the winter, except that this is over the United States and mid latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere in the summer. So, this is an example, and just one example, of potentially serious ramifications from these irreversible changes to the climate structure. And I would like to emphasize that this question is not a question of global warming—that carries very little imperative with it; it’s a question of the timescale for irreversible change. And this link between climate and ozone is one of those examples.
AMY GOODMAN: In a letter last October, Harvard President Drew Faust wrote, quote, "Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise." She wrote, "The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change." Your response to that, Professor Anderson?
JAMES ANDERSON: Well, I think there are always entanglements involved in any position, for any organization or any structure. And in large measure, the universities have the greatest independence, the greatest opportunity for leadership, and the greatest opportunity for establishing the ethics for future generations. And I think all of those points she makes are certainly valid, but I think the issue of leadership and the fundamental interests of this and coming generations trumps those points.
And I think the universities, not just Harvard but all universities certainly across the United States, owe a very significant debt to their graduates. The university has to take responsibility for teaching those students about the issues that will confront them the day they walk out with their diploma. And research is increasingly showing that students are graduating two million a year from U.S. universities without the knowledge to know how to vote. And so, this whole dialogue has to come alive. It has to inject itself fundamentally into the curriculum. And all of us need to understand the fundamental points behind climate and behind the relationship between climate and energy. So I think those are the dominant factors that the university must step up and take responsible for.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring in Jamie Henn, who’s the co-founder of 350.org. Jamie, what about this issue of how the debate is spreading to universities around the country of divestment from the fossil fuel industry? And also, could you talk about the importance of such an action at Harvard specifically, what kind of signal that would send to the academic community across the nation?
JAMIE HENN: Well, it’s good to be with you guys. Yeah, it’s been amazing to watch the divestment movement spread over the last 18 months, starting on just a few university campuses here in the U.S. and now having spread to over 500 colleges, universities, cities, states, pension funds, hospitals—you name it—not just here in the U.S., but around the world. We have campaigners hard at work in Australia pressuring banks to stop financing coal, across to Europe and in the U.K., where the Quakers have already divested and big pressure is coming on the Church of England.
Harvard is an iconic institution in this fight. And so, having the faculty come out like this so strongly, I think, is a real sign of momentum that things are beginning to escalate on campus, that we’re beginning to find a foothold with the—that administration and administrations across the country. Right now, students at Washington University in St. Louis are doing a sit-in to pressure the campus to cut ties with the Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company. So this debate is really beginning, I think, to make an impact. And having the voices of incredible leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu only adds to a sense of momentum as we get into the spring.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jamie, what are some of the institutions that have already taken the step to divest?
JAMIE HENN: Well, there have been nine colleges across the U.S. that have divested, from east to west, San Francisco State University to small liberal arts institutions on the East Coast. About 20 cities have made a divestment commitment, from San Francisco, Seattle, to smaller towns across the country. Very importantly, a large group of 17 foundations, representing about $1.8 billion in assets, have already divested. People of faith have really taken up this cause, from all sorts of different denominations taking action. And I believe that this weekend we’re going to get another good announcement about a well-known college divesting, as well. So things are picking up speed, and we’re beginning to see this really make an impact.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Anderson, talk about the endowment of Harvard University, it’s significant—its significance. And what would disinvesting from the oil industry look like?
JAMES ANDERSON: Well, I think it’s the principle that’s behind this. And that is that the issue of climate impact, that’s engendered by the combustion of fossil fuel, and the opportunity to entirely wean our energy structure off of fossil fuels, because the United States is profoundly endowed with renewable energy—wind, solar, thermal, geothermal, hydro—opens a pathway that the students, when they take courses, understand. And of course a case can be made that the entanglement of fossil fuel companies within the endowment structure is a very complicated issue; nobody is questioning that. In fact, the energy industry is a $6 to $8 trillion-a-year international enterprise, so it has its roots, its fingers, in every single aspect. So, you know, a clean severance is not something that is easy to do.
But this is a very important statement on the contribution of the universities to the future of this country. And you—I teach an introductory course that couples the principles of chemistry and physics to the larger global context of climate energy, energy consequences, energy technology. And when the students simply see the facts, their immediate question is: "Well, what can I do about this?" And one of the things that they can do about it is to push the university to divest. It’s a very important venue for exhibiting what they can do at age 18 and 19. So, it’s a really important leadership issue, and it’s a really important venue through which students can actually begin an activist contribution to their own future and to the country’s long-term welfare.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Jamie Henn, is there any sense on your part of the reaction of the fossil fuel industry to the growth of this campaign, to what degree they may be panicked or worried about it?
JAMIE HENN: Well, I think it’s beginning to have an impact. The American Petroleum Institute last year came out with a study trying to show that universities would be really hard hit endowment-wise if they divested from the oil industry, in particular. We had some financial analysts go back and discover that they had actually just cherry-picked the data from a very short period when the oil industry was doing well, but if you extended that period back, a university actually would have made more money if it had divested a decade ago than if it stayed invested in the oil industry. So this is making an impact.
You know, I think the area where it’s really beginning to resonate, though, is actually in the financial community. I’m based in New York most of the time, and it’s amazing to see how the discussion about divestment, about the threat of a carbon bubble, is beginning to spread on Wall Street. We’re hearing this come up at financial conferences with big-time investors. This is a really powerful idea, that we cannot continue to invest in these companies if we’re going to address climate change in a serious way, and that, in fact, these companies might be seriously overvalued, because they’re saying they can burn fossil fuel reserves, which we simply cannot burn if we’re going to address climate change. So the divestment movement is, I think, having a profound impact, not only on these universities, on the industry itself, but in the financial community, where we really do need to see a massive change in the flow of capital in order to take on this crisis.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us, Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org, and James Anderson, Harvard professor of chemistry and Earth and planetary sciences, one of the signatories to a letter of 93 professors urging Harvard to divest from the fossil fuel industry. He was speaking to us from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a new TV series is being launched, Years of Living Dangerously. We’ll talk to one of the people involved. Stay with us.
Bishop Desmond Tutu image via wikimedia commons.
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