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Harvard Environmental Science Faculty and Experts Split on Divestment

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment earlier this year.
The Faculty of Arts and Sciences voted in favor of fossil fuel divestment earlier this year. By Aiyana G. White
By Ethan Lee, Crimson Staff Writer

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences and the Harvard Medical School Faculty Council passed resolutions in February calling for Harvard to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, but faculty who study environmental science say they are split on whether divestment would be effective in combatting climate change.

Several faculty said fossil fuel divestment would be a largely symbolic act.

Michaela J. Thompson, a preceptor in Environmental Science and Public Policy, said the symbolic nature of divestment by Harvard especially would have a far-reaching impact in tackling climate change.

“That symbolic nature is what is important,” Thompson said. “I grew up in Boston; Harvard is a symbol, it’s always been a symbol, and I think at this point in time, given the concerns of climate change, that symbolic pronouncement is something that Harvard should take a very serious understanding of its responsibility. I think that that symbolism is necessary.”

Other professors, however, disagreed. John P. Holdren, a professor of Environmental Policy, wrote in an email that divestment would distract Harvard faculty and students from more effective methods of combating climate change.

“It’s not only not the best form of action, it’s a counterproductive form of action,” he wrote. “It’s counterproductive because it would lead many Harvard faculty and students to imagine they’d struck an effective blow against climate change—and would likely reduce their focus on more productive measures—when it would actually be a misdirected blow. Just advocating for it is distracting people from measures that would actually be effective.”

Holdren suggested the use of a carbon tax and cleaner energy sources to lower the demand for fossil fuels in other industries, noting that divesting from all companies using fossil fuels would require divestment from a multitude of corporations.

“If university divestment of fossil-fuel companies were a good idea, surely divesting from all companies that use fossil fuels would be a much better one,” Holdren wrote. “Of course, that would entail divestment of virtually all companies in the portfolio.”

Stephen A. Marglin, a professor of Economics who voted in favor of divestment at the FAS vote in February, said in a statement at the vote that divestment should focus on corporations that are most directly involved in the depletion of fossil fuels.

“Those of us urging divestment and decarbonization of the endowment are sometimes accused of hypocrisy in consuming the products of companies we would ban from the endowment,” Marglin said. “The truth is different and involves no hypocrisy. We are not proposing divestment because ExxonMobil and its ilk produce fossil fuels, but because these companies plan to produce fossil fuels until the last drop of oil is squeezed from the ground.”

Dustin Tingley, a professor of Government who voted against divestment at the FAS vote, said in a statement at the meeting that he believes investing in other methods to combat climate change would be more effective than divestment.

“Today, I will vote no to divestment, but yes to investment in the research, teaching, and learning around climate change,” Tingley said. “Yes to investment by Harvard in this vital space that has clearly struck a nerve among our students, staff, and faculty.”

Holdren also wrote that “working with fossil-fuel companies” to “accelerate a transition to more sustainable business models” would be constructive towards fighting the effects of climate change.

However, Thompson said she believes arguments for working “within the system” and to “nudge” corporations toward better practices are insufficient to transform many industries’ reliance on fossil fuels.

“I think Divest, in some ways, pushes us further towards that transformation, and we can continue to invest in research and teaching, but I don’t see there being a disconnect between us divesting from our actual portfolio in fossil fuels and continuing to invest money in climate change research,” Thompson said

—Staff writer Ethan Lee can be reached at

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