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Can Harvard be on the 'wrong side of history'?

On Thursday, May 1, at around seven in the morning, 20-year-old college student Brett Roche was placed in handcuffs. He didn't hurt anyone, steal or damage anything. His crime: standing in front of a door.

But it wasn't just any door. It belonged to Harvard University and led to the office of its president, Drew Gilpin Faust.

Roche's decision to defy orders from campus police to "move out of the way" was just one of many actions taken as part of a growing global movement that is calling on educational and religious establishments, cities and states to divest their finances from fossil fuels.

"There's been increasing support for the movement on campus," said Roche, a member of the Divest Harvard student group. "And I want to know what they're afraid of."

The idea is that -- by dropping stocks, bonds and investment funds linked to nonrenewable energy -- institutions and governments can permanently stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and, in turn, help slow down climate change.

And if wealthy establishments band together to divest, many presume there could even be an economic impact.

Now, thousands of students around the world are calling on their colleges and universities to join the fossil-fuel divestment movement.

In the United States, where the initiative is most active, endowments from the top 500 or so universities total nearly $400 billion. The largest chunk of that, at about $32 billion, belongs to Harvard, making it a key benchmark in determining the movement's success, at least domestically.

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But getting one of the most powerful and wealthy institutions to comply with a request its president has deemed not "warranted or wise" and "political" in nature is no easy feat.

There is no Faustian bargain -- yet

"President Faust basically said that Harvard will never divest, and she laid out her reasoning," said 21-year-old Chloe Maxmin, a co-founder of Divest Harvard. "Regardless, we're still very committed to engaging in a public dialogue about divestment with our university, and we've been asking to do so since September."

Yet, as Harvard's administration defiantly stands its ground, its counterparts across the country continue to be swept up by a movement that retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa referred to in The Guardian as "the fastest-growing corporate campaign of its kind in history."

Since the movement's emergence in about 2011, 12 U.S. colleges and universities have joined it, while 400 student campaigns remain active.

"I think Harvard is on the wrong side of history," said Maxmin.

It's not often that a tiny liberal arts school in rural Pennsylvania becomes the catalyst behind a global movement targeting one of the most powerful industries on Earth. But that's exactly what happened in 2010, when students from Swarthmore College took a trip down south to the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia.

While there, they said on their group's website, they witnessed the negative effects mountaintop-removal coal mining has on the surrounding communities and landscape, prompting them to take a stand against this "extreme form" of coal extraction. The students decided that the most effective course of action would be to target their school's nearly $1.6 billion endowment, which had investments in coal and other extractive industries.

Their quest for rectitude led to the creation of the first-ever fossil-fuel divestment campaign, named Swarthmore Mountain Justice.

Barely a year after the group's debut, in 2011, the campaign began to turn into a movement, spreading to college and university campuses across the country, from the leafy steps of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to Lewis and Clark College in Oregon and the perfectly manicured grounds of Brown University in Rhode Island.

But it wasn't until the fall of 2012 that the movement would solidify itself as such. It was then that 350.org, one of the world's leading climate change advocacy organizations, officially endorsed the burgeoning initiative by taking it on the road as part of a 21-city nationwide tour fronted by the organization's founder, leading environmentalist Bill McKibben.

"After the tour, it grew to over 300 college campuses," said 350.org's fossil fuel divestment campaign manager, Jay Carmona. "It was an incredible outpouring of support."

Now, in addition to higher education institutions, dozens of religious groups, cities, counties and foundations around the world have pledged to remove fossil fuel companies from their investment portfolios.

"This is now a broad-based, multi-level, multi-sector resistance to the fossil fuel industry's political influence and business model," said Carmona. "In many ways, this generation is seeing the structural problem and creating a structural solution."

"But," she added, "it's going to go up against a lot of fundamental, very entrenched resistance. In a lot of cases, we're seeing school administration trying to duck their responsibility for the part they're playing in climate change."

Chloe vs. Goliath

Perhaps Chloe Maxmin didn't know what she was getting herself into when she co-founded Divest Harvard in the fall of 2012. Or maybe she did. After all, one of the greatest stories ever told ends with a giant Philistine warrior being taken down by a scrawny, stone-slinging shepherd boy.

"When we started our group, we had literally 10 people in a room," she said. "None of us had done anything like this before."

But despite the group's inexperience, it didn't take long before its bare-boned campaign managed to collect 1,300 petition signatures and a referendum it said revealed that 72 percent of Harvard's undergraduates and 67 percent of its law school students were in favor of divestment.

In the first half of 2013, after three unsuccessful meetings with members of the Harvard Corporation Committee on Shareholder Responsibility and several futile visits with Faust during student office hours, the group revved up its campaign.

And in October 2013, Faust broke her public silence on the matter with the release of an official statement. In it, she outlined several points: that divestment from fossil fuels would "appear to position the University as a political actor," that it would "come at a substantial economic cost" and that it would "diminish the influence or voice [Harvard] may have with [the fossil fuel industry]."

Instead, she wrote, the university would concentrate on enhancing its sustainable investment efforts, which would be accelerated by the recent hiring of its first-ever president for sustainable investing.

On April 7, 2014, nearly half a year and several more Divest Harvard actions later, Faust directed a letter, titled "Confronting climate change," to members of the Harvard community.

It announced that Harvard's endowment would become a signatory to the U.N.-supported Principles for Investment and Carbon Disclosure Project's climate change program -- initiatives meant to "green" investment portfolios and encourage climate action among companies.

But things took a dramatic turn on April 10, when more than 100 Harvard faculty members authored "An Open Letter" to Faust, university fellows and faculty calling for fossil-fuel divestment.

With many of Harvard's alumni and faculty members now in tow, last week marked Divest Harvard's largest and most aggressive action to date: a 60,000-signature petition calling for divestment and a more than 24-hour blockade of Faust's office building, which culminated in Roche's arrest.

Maxmin said the blockade was meant to bring attention to the university's continued unwillingness to engage in a public dialogue on fossil-fuel divestment.

"[Faust] has been digging herself in a hole since this campaign started by not even being willing to discuss it," she said. "This is an entire movement ... rationally calling for divestment and, at the very least, a discussion."

When reached for comment, Harvard sent an emailed statement that said it had "discussed these issues on many occasions, including multiple meetings with Divest Harvard," and highlighted its current efforts to fight climate change.

"Harvard wants to keep going as they've been doing," said Carmona. "They're very embedded in this system I call 'investing as usual.' I think the students, faculty, community and supporters are saying it's not good enough anymore."

The power of stigma

But how much of an impact would divestment actually have on the fossil fuel industry?

According to Ben Caldecott, program director and research fellow at the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, it wouldn't have a significant effect on the price and value of the companies that are being divested from.

"That's because there are so many other investors out there, and the amount of money that might be divested from these companies with vast market capitalizations is so small," said Caldecott, who co-authored a recent Oxford University study examining divestment's impact on fossil fuel assets.

The key, he said, is stigmatization: "It would have an impact on the ability of those companies to get affordable capital, to attract and retain good workers, as well as affect their relationships with governments and NGOs, which might increase the cost of doing business."

As Harvard student Eric Hendey pointed out in a Harvard Political Review article he authored, while it is not clear how much of a financial effect divestment had on South Africa's apartheid regime in the '70s and '80s, it did bring attention to its moral injustices, which helped to fuel the global opposition that likely contributed to the government's demise.

And while, according to Caldecott, the fossil-fuel divestment campaign has grown much faster than any of the previous divestment movements, which he attributes to social media and good planning on the part of organizers, the difference is that it's targeting a huge part of the global economy.

"Most of the [fossil fuel] reserves are run by [nation] states, so there are questions about how this campaign can extend to targeting publicly owned resources and companies in countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia, and so on," he said.

A less challenging divestment path, he said, would be to look at oil, gas and coal separately, the latter being perhaps the most effective fossil fuel to initially target because it's typically a very small part of investor portfolios yet the dirtiest of the bunch.

It is an approach that Harvard's cross-country rival, Stanford University, seems to have taken. On Tuesday, Stanford announced that it would be divesting its $18.7 billion endowment from coal companies, a historic win for the fossil-fuel divestment campaign, as it is the wealthiest higher-education institution to have joined the movement so far (ClimateWire, May 7).

While many divestment activists, including Carmona, think Stanford's bold move will inspire other schools and universities to take a closer look at their investments, she said it's up to Harvard to make the biggest impact.

"Harvard has the largest endowment in the country. Anyone who is smart in investing pays attention to what they're doing," she said. "Harvard also has a recognizable name, and these two things combined would mean their divestment would really make a big impact domestically, and even globally.

"It would be a sad page in the history books if schools such as Harvard deserted the planet at this critical time."

Twitter: @ElspethDehnert | Email: edehnert@eenews.net

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