Last week, President Drew Faust announced that Harvard would not be divesting the endowment from fossil fuel investments. While this is a disappointment, it is a small one compared to Harvard’s broader failure to sound the alarm on climate crisis, and to take an active leadership role in the social movement that must fight back against the greatest threat humanity has ever faced. I agree with Dr. Faust that there are “more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities,” other than divestment that Harvard can contribute to fighting of climate change. Harvard is, after all, an academic institution; Harvard can contribute more to fighting climate change in knowledge, scholarship, and commitment than it could possibly contribute economically. But I firmly disagree with Faust’s implication that Harvard has met, or even come close to meeting, this obligation.
The last time human stability and civilization was imperiled, Harvard reacted with courage and fortitude. Before the Pearl Harbor attacks on 12/7/1941, the national mood was strongly isolationist; Americans were in denial about the magnitude of the Axis threat. They knew that war would involve much sacrifice; so they told themselves that the Axis powers weren’t “that bad” and that it was a foreign war that didn’t concern them. In May 1940, President Harvard President James Bryant Conant delivered a national radio broadcast urging the United States to prepare for war through rearmament and aiding our Allies. This speech earned him harsh criticism from isolationists. That same year, a group of faculty launched the “American Defense-Harvard Group,” advocating US support for the Allies. Harvard scientists shifted their projects to focus on militarily relevant work: radio technology, explosives, and military medicine. This was Harvard at its best, fully utilizing its institutional capacity in the face of a grave threat. The Harvard faculty and administration knew the magnitude of the Nazi and Axis threat, and they stood firmly for that truth in the face of widespread ignorance and denial.
Once war was declared, Harvard transformed itself almost entirely into a war-college, training officers, developing relevant technology, and dedicating itself to victory. Harvard made huge shifts to best facilitate the war effort for example adding a third semester, conducting massive amounts of war research mainly in the sciences, but also through the business school. In 1944, only 19 people graduated from Harvard’s “regular” (ie non military) course offerings.
Once again, civilization faces a great threat, and once again the national mood stands against an effective, appropriate response. We are in collective denial; not able to fully grasp the magnitude not immense of the threat, or the magnitude of the necessary response. Our politicians are hopelessly, laughably gridlocked and our media shamefully minimizes climate change, reporting it as an “environmental problem for our grandchildren” and not an immediate global crisis that threatens all of humanity and is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives through ever-increasing droughts, floods, failed agricultural yields, superstorms, wildfires and vector borne disease.
Once again, humanity is at a crossroads- facing a fearsome enemy but mired in denial about the scope of the threat. This is no ordinary time.
To actually fulfill it’s responsibility to society in this planetary crisis, Harvard must make fighting climate change central to the institutional mission. Harvard showed courage in the face of the Axis threat. Where has it gone? We used to fight for the truth when society was mired in denial and ignorance. But now Harvard has become part of the Lie, pretending that the our climate is not collapsing, that the status quo can continue, with token changes (for example, hiring a new “vice president for sustainable investing”).
President Faust, how about following President Conant’s example and give a televised speech, as a private citizen about the imminent threat of climate change and the need for a massive US and global response? Or faculty, how about forming a “Human Climate Defense- Harvard Group.” Harvard scientists are already working on projects relevant to fighting climate change, and these excellent projects should be expanded and increased. But Harvard should also engage the rest of the faculty as well in studying and contributing to the scholarly project of fighting climate change. Climate change is a human problem, not a “science” problem; it will affect all of us, and all of us have a responsibility to fight against its threat. Historians, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists, economists, and theologians have important information they can contribute to the question of how humanity should mobilize to fight climate change. The humanities can help us narrate the struggle, and put it in the context of the art and stories of past human struggles.
Harvard’s responsibility in this time of peril is much, much greater than divestment. Harvard must speak the terrifying truth of climate change and mobilize in its name. This is Harvard’s moral obligation as arguably the most respected university in the world—one that claims to value truth above all. The cold, hard Veritas is that climate change poses an imminent threat to human civilization, posing a greater threat than the axis powers ever did.
Come on, Harvard. Enough foot-dragging and responsibility shirking. Gather up your courage; its time to lead.