fb-pixel Skip to main content
Opinion | Bill McKibben

The Greta Thunberg generation pushes Harvard to deal with climate crisis

The plural of “privilege’’ is “establishment,” and Harvard University is the greatest example on American soil — the richest private university on earth, and one that’s proven too hidebound and intellectually dishonest to grapple with the climate crisis now overwhelming the planet.

In response, fed-up alumni are finally going to do their best to effect at least a minor revolution in how things happen in the ivied Harvard Yard: This week marks the start of a campaign to elect a slate of dissident members to the Harvard’s Board of Overseers, all of them young and all of them committed to change.


The Harvard Forward campaign wants more recent university graduates on the board, reasoning that the worldview of aging hedge fund executives may be currently more powerful than is healthy. Their diverse slate of candidates includes Midge Purce, who plays professional soccer, Thea Sebastian, a civil rights attorney, and Jayson Toweh, an EPA analyst. Beyond their Harvard pedigrees, what they have in common is, as the group’s manifesto puts it, a commitment to “complete and swift divestment of all university assets from fossil fuels.

Students nationwide began making that request seven years ago. Since then, generations of undergraduates — and hundreds of faculty — have staged ongoing protests, and they’ve decisively carried the argument: Selling off stock in coal, oil, and gas has proved to be a crucial tactic (it helped drive Peabody Coal to bankruptcy, and Shell Oil this year declared it to be a material risk to its business model) and also a smart business decision. Since the fossil fuel sector has dramatically underperformed the market for a decade (it’s been, in fact, the weakest segment of the whole economy), those that acted responsibly have profited handsomely.

The latest proof of that maxim came last month when the University of California system — the largest and arguably best public higher education system on earth — divested its entire $80 billion endowment and pension fund. As the system’s investment manager put it, “We believe hanging on to fossil fuel assets is a financial risk.” He added, “We have been looking years, decades, and centuries ahead as we place our bets that clean energy will fuel the world’s future. That means we believe there is money to be made. We have chosen to invest for a better planet, and reap the financial rewards for UC.”


UC — which supports a research mission every bit as ambitious as Harvard’s — was by no means alone. More than half the universities in the United Kingdom have divested. So have the Rockefeller charities, the World Council of Churches, and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, which is the largest single pool of investment capital on earth. They’ve all cited some mix of moral and financial reasoning, and they’ve all done just fine by the deal.

Harvard, though, has stubbornly clung to the notion that its endowment shouldn’t be used for “political” ends, a position that makes no logical sense (why is it apolitical to invest and political to divest) and not historically consistent (Harvard divested, for instance, from tobacco stocks). The fight echoes Harvard’s similar refusal a generation ago to divest from apartheid South Africa — a resistance finally overcome when alumni managed to elect South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and future vice president Al Gore to the board.


Why is Harvard unwilling to do the right thing? Does it fear that some ancient, encrusted alumnus — some Reginald Bearerbonds VI — will take umbrage at divestment and amend his will to reduce the number of squash courts that will carry his name?

Members of Havard Forward will attempt to make Harvard fear the power of committed graduates instead. Rather than trying to change the minds of the encrusted establishment, Harvard Forward is trying to empower younger people who already know the direction the world needs to go. A Harvard education is a fine thing, and many of the people who receive one don’t end up devoting themselves to endless self-enrichment. Instead they try to help the world. I bet many of them will decide they don’t want their donations to their alma mater used to buy more ExxonMobil stock.

If they’re able to carry the day, they’ll do Harvard a great favor. After all, the Greta Thunberg generation will naturally look a little askance at an institution as out of step with the times as Harvard. Everyone wants to be proud of their school. At this point in human history, that pride rests on the university’s willingness to step up and help in a time of crisis.

Bill McKibben is cofounder of the global climate campaign 350.org and a member of the environmental studies faculty at Middlebury College.