At Harvard Law, a highly visible push to divest from fossil fuels

Living on Earth
Harvard heat week megaphone

A rally during "Heat Week" at Harvard University. From April 12 -17th, students, faculty, alumni, and members of the Harvard community gathered for a week of action calling on the university to divest from fossil fuels.

One of the most visible student movements pushing universities to divest in fossil fuels has emerged from a somewhat unlikely place: Harvard Law School.

A law degree from Harvard is generally a ticket to everything from the presidency of United States (think President Obama) to the Supreme Court (think Ginsburg, Scalia, Breyer, Kennedy, Roberts and Kagan) and major law firms. In other words, Harvard Law doesn’t immediately conjure images of influential environmental activists.

But Ted Hamilton, a current Harvard Law student and one of the leaders of the student divestment movement, may be helping to change that perception.

“Being in a place like Harvard and Harvard Law School gives you a really special opportunity to rock the boat,” Hamilton says. “People listen to you — maybe unfairly. There’s unfair attention shined upon the Harvard campus. Even though we're students, we have this unearned power to influence conversation and to make a difference for the climate movement.”

Hamilton says that, like a lot of other divestment campaigns, one of the primary goals of the student movement is to shine a light on the “moral urgency” underlying the issue.

“This is not just a technical issue. It's not just a scientific issue,” he argues. “The morality of the fossil fuel system, as it is, is something that implicates powerful institutions like Harvard. So one of the first things we need to do if we're going to enact more proactive climate policies is turn around the thinking that places like Harvard have nothing to do with climate change.” Inaction is a choice, Hamilton says. Institutions that refuse to act forfeit their status as moral leaders.

At Yale, one of Harvard’s chief rivals, its chief investment officer recently announced that the university will begin to “reduce its exposure” to fossil fuels — in other words, divest. Hamilton applauds the move, but questions Swenson’s motives.

“My personal opinion is that Yale divested for good reasons, not the best reasons,” he says. “We know that in a few decades from now, society will have to reach a point where places like Yale and places like Harvard are not investing in fossil fuel companies. So this is kind of just sticking your finger in the air, seeing which way the wind is blowing.”

The reason to divest is because it's wrong, not because it's failing to make money for rich institutions, Hamilton argues. Nevertheless, Yale’s move is a strong signal that investment in fossil fuels is no longer a good or a prudent thing to do.

“It’s another signal that the fossil fuel industry is a thing of the past,” Hamilton says. “Society is moving on.”

Hamilton is also one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit brought against Harvard by its students. The group, called the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, filed the suit in the fall of 2014.

“We have two claims,” Hamilton explains. “One is that Harvard is violating its charitable duties by investing in fossil fuels while knowing the tremendous harms that flow from global warming. They are also committing a tort against future generations by helping to perpetuate further fossil fuel infrastructure in the burning of carbon reserves.”

A “tort” is a wrong committed by one person or entity against another, Hamilton explains. “If I hit you with my car, that's a tort. If I invest in fossil fuel companies and perpetuate the global warming that's going to lead to sea level rise and hurt many countries and many people, that's a tort as well.”

Hamilton says one important point to focus on is what institutions like Harvard know about climate change now, compared to, say, a century ago.

“There was a certain period of time when people didn't realize the consequences of burning carbon reserves in our fossil fuel economy, but that point is far behind us now,” he says. Harvard has known for a long time that the support it gives to the fossil fuel industry perpetuates the climate crisis.

“So now,” Hamilton says, “when we see peer institutions divesting [and] a lot of people have made the moral choice, it's very hard to argue that Harvard's continued public support for the fossil fuel industry is anything but a decision in favor of business-as-usual and against climate justice.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood