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Imagine If Harvard Took on Climate Change

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 29, 2013 10:50:51 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

It was with a heavy heart that we read President Drew Faust’s announcement that HarvardHarvard would not join the Fossil Fuel Divestment movement. At 1,275 words, her statement acknowledges how seriously Harvard’s administration considered the issue. The statement opens with “Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges,” but “divestment from the fossil fuel industry is (neither) warranted or wise.”
Last Thursday, Seattle’s Mayor Michael McGinn wrote an impassioned protest for Huffington Post that lays out the arguments against Harvard’s stance, but it was surely no surprise to anyone. Harvard has a history of withstanding divestment movements, refusing to join even the anti-Apartheid divestment until ten years after protests began.

But still I expected more. Faust is one of my heroes. As the first female President of Harvard, she operates successfully and in some ways radically in one of the most entrenched old boys clubs in the country. My own alma mater, Harvard Business School, recently revealed a pattern of sexual harassment and discrimination that was as astonishing in its depth. Even more surprising is the fact that it was revealed at all, much less addressed with such fervor by HBS’ male Dean Nitin Nohria. Appointed by President Faust, Dean Nohria pledged to “remake gender relations.”

A few weeks before the divestment rejection, I had received another email from Harvard, the transcript of a speech by President Faust announcing a $6.5 billion capital campaign. Even more damning than Harvard’s failure to signal its support for an end to fossil fuels was its omission of climate change in its plans for the future.

Faust spoke eloquently answering the question, “What institutional commitments will we make to define who we are and who we will be decades and centuries from now?” She names Harvard’s priorities as genomics, imaging, nanotechnology, big data, computation and “forging of new connections and crossing traditional boundaries” required by digital privacy, bioengineering and understanding and alleviating ethnic and sectarian conflict.

How could there be absolutely no mention of climate change? Surely this issue is more critical to life as we know it than nanotechnology or digital privacy.

Then I remembered a phrase in the Fossil Fuel Divestment email: “funds in the endowment have been given by generous benefactors.” Here was the most likely reason for Harvard to reject pleas from 72% of its student body and millions of climate change advocates:

The fossil fuel industry and its owners give big, and their influence is pervasive.

Just one example: David Koch, the climate change denier/coal and oil baron, a graduate of MIT, has given $185 million to his alma mater.

Harvard’s campaign was kicked off with Bill Gates, suggesting that the computer industry might be its primary target. But Harvard’s campaign is too big to risk alienating its largest donors from any sector.

It seems Harvard’s anti-divestment decision might be simply put, a practical fund-raising strategy.

But the school is missing an even bigger opportunity. To quote the Harvard Political Review, “Divestment…would signal that America’s universities take the climate-energy challenge seriously.” And what better institution to lead America's universities than Harvard?

Another missed opportunity: Harvard could be raising capital to address the most intransigent, complex and compelling challenge of all, climate change. Bill Gates is more excited about it these days than computing. His big bet, TerraPower, is a nuclear energy innovator.

Imagine if Harvard put all of its might behind “forging of new connections and crossing traditional boundaries” to solve the climate crisis. It might be the best fund-raising strategy of all. Michael Bloomberg has given his alma mater John’s Hopkins a total of $1.1 billion for cross-disciplinary work, part of that specifically on sustainability. Surely there are other environmental advocates out there among the 52 billionaires who are Harvard graduates.

Maybe it’s time for Harvard to rethink its strategy.

Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 8,400+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 8,400+ companies from 135 industries in 104 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 270+ data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


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[fa icon="comment"] 0 Comments posted in apartheid, climate change, Fossil Fuel Divestment, fossil fuels, Harvard, Harvard Business School, Uncategorized, Michael Bloomberg, Paul Epstein, Robert Stavins, sexual harassment, Terrapower, $6.5 billion capital campaign, Bill Gates, Carol Pierson Holding, David Koch, Drew Faust, Impax Investment Management

Apartheid a Model for Climate Change?

[fa icon="calendar'] Aug 1, 2012 10:56:22 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

How many of us remember the “Crying Indian” from the early 70s? In that public service ad, a Native American (played by an Italian-American actor) canoes down a gorgeous stream, encountering floating trash, smokestacks and a beach littered with refuse. As he passes a crowded highway, a passenger throws garbage out the window. The camera pans to his face, where one tear makes its way down his craggy cheek.

That unforgettable image marked the start of the mass ecology movement and became a symbol almost as powerful as Earth Day. It also reinforced Native Americans as powerless victims of our culture’s wanton appetites.

Last week, some forty years after the Crying Indian, Native Americans are taking mattersclimate change into their own hands. Four tribes from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State hosted a symposium in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian to address climate change.

Called “First Stewards: Coastal Peoples Address Climate Change,” this gathering of coastal tribes from all regions in the US and its Pacific Island territories engaged sponsors from US land management services within the US Department of the Interior and partners from environmental organizations such as The Nature Conservancy.

As I read the daily blog from the symposium, I was struck by the heartbreaking stories of tribes whose livelihoods are built on the rapidly disappearing bounty of nature. These embattled peoples are once again suffering the brunt of our collective rapacity, this time in territory degradation and species loss.

But this time, Native Americans insist on being part of the solution. And some elements within our government agree. Daniel J. Basta, director, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, says, “Coastal indigenous people have internalized thousands of years of rich, place-based knowledge of climate change and its impact on humans, and adaptive behavior. Their experience is extremely valuable today and can help all of us as the world looks for ways to adapt.”

We need knowledgeable people to offer ideas for adaptation. But we also need passionate leaders to lead the fight for a long-term solution. Native Americans have rarely been successful at holding off those with great power from doing exactly what they want. But Natives are angry. Ann Marie Chischilly, an environmental professional and Navaho tribe member, urges fellow Natives, “Get mad! Get motivated and get involved.” And what better symbol in the fight to stem climate change than America’s first inhabitants?

But any good fight requires an antagonist, the more ruthless the better. And who could we blame that could make any real difference? The car companies have already embraced higher mileage requirements and electric cars. Who else is there?

In his cover story for Rolling Stone, “Global Warming's Terrifying New Math,” Bill McKibben suggests a candidate for villain, the oil companies. His “terrifying new math” estimates the value of fossil fuel reserves held by the fossil fuel industry at tens of trillions of dollars. Hence the seemingly endless resources the oil industry spends to stop any attempt to regulate its businesses.

And if we burn all of those reserves as the oil companies and their investors hope? CO2 levels will rise way past the level at which the human race can survive.

Indeed, this all-powerful adversary can only be stopped through a planet-wide moral outrage not seen since the anti-Apartheid movement. McKibben quotes Bob Massie, a former anti-apartheid activist who helped found the Investor Network on Climate Risk:

"Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective. The message is simple: We have had enough. We must sever the ties with those who profit from climate change – now."

The successful battle to end Apartheid had its clear villains, Apartheid supporters, its effective change agents in the international investment community, and its victims and symbols, the “non-whites.” We have our bad guys, a group already resented for spills like the Exxon Valdez and the BP Gulf Oil Spill.

[csrhubwidget company="BP-PLC" size="650x100"]

Click "Oil and Gas Extraction" in the CSRHub Sustainability Ratings widget above to see all the companies and their ratings in this industry.

McKibben suggests a divestment strategy kicked off by students outraged either by the threats to their own future or by the same empathy that drove their reaction to Apartheid.

While Natives have not had a lot of success going up against the powerful, they are effective and deeply moving as symbols as was seen with the Crying Indian. Only this time, they’ll be lending their own images in support of their own cause. And images of suffering Natives will be angry instead of sad. And they won’t be actors.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in apartheid, climate change, Exxon, First Stewards, NOAA, Uncategorized, Native Americans, BP, Carol Pierson Holding, National Museum of the American Indian

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