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Celebrating Harvard’s Divestment Decision, Fossil Fuel Divest Organizers Lay Out Next Steps

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Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard plans to maintain pressure on the University to shed its remaining fossil fuels investments and advocate for Harvard to invest instead in green economic initiatives in the wake of the University’s surprise announcement last week that it would eventually divest from the fossil fuel sector.

FFDH organizers announced their new goals alongside elected officials and environmental activists at a virtual press conference Wednesday, which followed University President Lawrence S. Bacow’s Sept. 9 declaration that the University’s endowment “does not intend” to make future investments in the fossil fuel industry.

Currently, fossil fuels make up less than 2 percent of Harvard’s endowment portfolio, but it will likely be years before those holdings are sold off, since Harvard Management Company — which controls the University’s endowment — has a legal obligation to fund its remaining commitments to private equity firms that invest in fossil fuels.

“HMC is legally obligated to fund capital calls if requested by the general partner up to the maximum capital committed at the time of the investment,” Bacow’s Sept. 9 announcement reads.

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Divest Harvard organizers signaled Wednesday that they will continue their pressure campaign until HMC follows through with its pledge to allow its investments in fossil fuels to end.

“We’re going to be focusing on holding Harvard accountable, of course, for phasing out its remaining indirect investments in fossil fuels,” said Ilana A. Cohen ’23, an FFDH organizer. “But we’re also going to be really working to further this larger vision of sustainable re-investment.”

She said FFDH hopes to pivot its efforts to urge the University to scale up its investments in a more “just, regenerative economy” that “needs to take the place of the fossil fuel industry and other extractive and exploitative industries like it.”

The press conference, which included divest activists from Princeton and leaders of international environmental organizations, also discussed the significance of Harvard’s announcement for other divestment campaigns across universities, as well as the financial impact on the fossil fuel industry.

Environmental activist William E. “Bill” McKibben ’82, a former Crimson president, kicked off the press conference acknowledging the years-long work of organizers behind the divestment movement, but lamented that Harvard’s announcement came “too late.”

“This day comes too late to save the people who died in Hurricane Ida, or to save the forests of the West that have gone up in the last six months, or, frankly, to save the people who will perish in the years ahead, but not too late to be a huge help in doing what we still can,” McKibben said. “By turning up the heat on Harvard and everywhere else, the people on this call have done a magnificent job of helping turn down the heat on the earth, and that is what we desperately need.”

McKibben said that Harvard’s decision left its peer institutions that still invest in fossil fuels with “no place to hide.”

“It’s entirely clear at this point that the smart money has fled the fossil fuel industry, and that we need everyone out,” he said.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the press conference.

On Wednesday, Cohen also touched on FFDH’s pending legal complaint filed earlier this year with the office of Massachusetts attorney general Maura T. Healey ’92, noting that the group is still awaiting a response from her office.

“The legal complaint is now really in the hands of our Massachusetts state attorney general,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that she hoped the complaint would serve as a template to “uplift” other divest movements like one at Boston College.

“We’ve put forward what we believe is an incredibly compelling argument,” Cohen said. “This is an argument that we also believe is more broadly applicable to other institutions that have nonprofit status, so we’re waiting to see what the AG does with this complaint.”

—Staff writer Kevin A. Simauchi can be reached at kevin.simauchi@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Simauchi.

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