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opinion | Bill McKibben

Shake Harvard free of oil stock

Harvard students staged a sit-in in February at Massachusetts Hall to protest the school’s decision not to divest from fossil fuels.Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff/file

To understand why prominent Harvard alumni are joining students to demand their alma mater divest its fossil fuel stock, consider how the university has behaved.

Here was the scene last fall. In New York, 400,000 climate protesters marched down 6th Avenue, the largest demonstration about any issue in the United States in years. Also, the World Council of Churches, representing 580 million Christians, announced plans to divest its fossil fuel holdings. Then members of the Rockefeller family — the first family of fossil fuel — took the same step.

And in Cambridge? After huge majorities of Harvard students asked for divestment, and after a letter signed by much of the faculty backed the request, the Harvard Corporation septupled its direct investments in fossil fuels. Most of Harvard’s investments are secret, but in the relatively small portion of its portfolio that it discloses, it increased by a factor of seven its investment during the third quarter of 2014. Talk about sending a message.

The biggest of those new investments illustrates everything that’s wrong with Harvard’s stance, and helps make it clear why prominent alumni from Cornell West to Bevis Longstreth (two-time Reagan appointee to the SEC) to Natalie Portman have called for sit-ins in Harvard Yard later this month. According to an investigation by Chloe Maxmin, a student co-founder of DivestHarvard, the university plunked down $57.4 million for a stake in Anadarko Petroleum, one of the country’s biggest independent oil and gas exploration firms. Anadarko not only played a cameo role in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, but also just paid the federal government $5 billion to settle the “largest environmental contamination case in American history.”


But hey, anyone can make mistakes. The real story is what Anadarko does on purpose. It hunts for new sources of oil and gas — even though climate scientists have said that we have far more carbon in our current reserves than we could possibly burn and keep the planet from catastrophe. And if you don’t trust the scientists? Here’s Mark Carney (Harvard Class of ’88) from his radical post as governor of the Bank of England, also last fall: “The vast majority of reserves are unburnable.”


Even with falling oil prices causing all drillers to cut back for the moment, Anadarko reassured its shareholders in late March that this year it “expects to drill nine to 12 deepwater exploration/appraisal wells focusing on play-opening exploration opportunities in Colombia, Kenya, and the Gulf of Mexico.” Once more: We already have discovered, by nearly every estimate, far more oil than we can burn, and yet Anadarko keeps looking for more.

Behaving with this kind of irresponsibility gets harder and harder in a world where drought, flood, and endless snow make clearer each day the toll climate change takes on us all, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. But never fear. Here’s the method an Anadarko executive recommended to a 2011 conference of industry peers on how to face down anti-fracking citizens groups: “I want you to download the US Army/Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual because we are dealing with an insurgency here.”

That’s the ground war — but Anadarko hasn’t neglected to pay off the generals either. It has donated more than $5 million to members of Congress since 1990, almost all of it to Republicans, including a hefty chunk to Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, one of the country’s most outspoken climate deniers.


Universities from Stanford to Sydney to Scotland to Stockholm have begun the process of divesting from companies like Anadarko, Shell, Exxon, and Gazprom. The World Bank and the International Energy Agency, HSBC, and Deutschebank have done their patient best in the last year or two to explain that we need less carbon, not more.

At Harvard, though, there’s no commitment at all. It’s business as usual, with a kind of sad obliviousness to the realities of the day. That’s why we’ve got to park ourselves in Harvard Yard this spring, and hope through nonviolent witness to shake the richest university in the world out of its persistent, willful slumber.

Bill McKibben, a graduate of Harvard University, is founder of the climate group 350.org and the Schumann distinguished scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.


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