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An Open Letter to President Drew Faust, Harvard University

[fa icon="calendar'] Apr 20, 2018 9:55:26 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

Drew Faust-Harvard

In a few months, you will retire from Harvard University and be free to direct your colossal talents wherever you want. I’m writing with an idea of how you could contribute to the climate change mitigation effort in a way no-one else can, and in the process, reverse what I think may be the only blemish on your otherwise outstanding record: forsaking the divestment movement.

You once said, “Climate change represents one of the world’s most consequential challenges.” I too am passionate about addressing climate change, writing commentary through the lens of business principles I learned at Harvard (MBA 1980). I used these principles to study divestment, and I came out in favor.

After five years of protests, arrests, lawsuits, sit-ins, blockades, petitions and verbal and written criticism, including my own commentary, you sent a junior investment manager to announce that Harvard’s Endowment intends to “pause” on investing in “some” fossil fuels. Your action pacified the student protestors but it disappointed me.

I’m sure you were facing pressure from those against divestment, especially donors whose fortunes come from fossil fuels. I was astounded to read one alumni denier’s claim that “…it is clear that CO2 causes little global warming” and another that “…you ‘believers’ feed the flames of needless CO2 panic just to blame conservatives for something.”

Still, your decision galls me, even now, one year after Harvard’s feeble divestment announcement, and I needed to understand it.

I decided to take a look at what else was going on in your life over the five years of the divestment struggle. The first thing I came across was this: Ric Burns’ documentary Death and the Civil War, based on your book This Republic of Suffering, premiered in September, 2012, about the time the Divest Harvard movement had its first meeting. You were the film’s source; you provided narration and on-screen interviews; you participated in the promotion tour.

So I watched the documentary. In the first fifteen minutes, I learned that over the four years of the Civil War, our nation lost 750,000 of its citizens, or 2.5%, or what in today’s world what would equal seven million Americans, death that touched every person in the country, death that was in and of itself overwhelming and “greater in scale and power than any ever before imagined.” A horrifying fact, vividly portrayed.

I couldn’t let go of that statement, that in today’s terms, deaths of 2.5% of the population would be seven million people. The New York Times described the film as “A Wave of Staggering Loss, in a Country Unprepared.” And I wondered just how many, many more deaths would result from climate and environmental changes, over how many, many more years. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization estimated 12.6 million deaths a year worldwide are the result of degradation in air and water quality and chemical hazards. That number doesn’t include deaths from rising sea levels, extreme weather, floods and droughts, dislocation, and so on. No one dares to project total mortality. That loss would be as incomprehensible as the human toll from the Civil War was to mid-19th century Americans.

In your 2015 speech at Tsinghua University in Bejing, China, you said, “The commitments of governments can be carried out only if every sector of society contributes. Industry, education, agriculture, business, finance, individual citizens—all are necessary participants in what must become an energy and environmental revolution.” I found my way of contributing, writing pieces intended to convince business leaders that climate change adaptation is sensible and fiscally prudent.

You closed your speech with a quote from architect and urban planner Wu Liangyong: “My dream about the future is that we could live… in harmony with nature.” I try to get that sentiment across in my more positive pieces, to advance a sustainable belief system in which we quit trying to vanquish nature and decide instead to corral her as our partner. That simple conviction could enable real solutions, and I’m continuing to advance that idea.

But I fear we’re both speaking to the believers. We’re missing the other piece, the piece that’s relevant no matter how you think about nature, the mortality we’re already seeing, those staggering losses from floods in Florida and wildfires in California to tainted water in Flint, in a country that can’t believe it’s happening even as we’re beginning to feel overwhelmed. This may be the contribution you’re meant to make, one that only you can bring to the environmental revolution: Help us be ready. Tell us how much worse our future will be, as we face staggering loss, if we’re unprepared. It’s not the past history but future history. Write another book; turn it into another movie and lay it out as you did in Death and the Civil War. Predict what new institutions we will need to be resilient. Show what major mutations to our society will be required. Remind us how we adapted during the Civil War. Tell us again that we can prepare for radical overhaul even amidst death that feels unbearable.

Or perhaps because of it.

Photo courtesy of  Art Poskanzer.

Carol Pierson Holding photo-2Carol Pierson Holding is President and Founder, Holding Associates. Carol serves as Guest Blogger for CSRHub. Her firm has focused on the intersection of brand and social responsibility, working with Cisco Systems, Wilmington Trust, Bankrate.com, the US EPA, Yale University’s School of Environmental Sciences, and various non-profits. Before founding Holding Associates, Carol worked in executive management positions at Siegel & Gale, McCann Erickson, and Citibank. She is a Board Member of AMREF (African Medical and Research Foundation). Carol received her AB from Smith College and her MBA from Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and rankings information on 17,000+ companies from 135 industries in 133 countries. 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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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

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