Hundreds of students and alumni from Harvard and Yale disrupted the annual football game between the two universities on Saturday, November 23 to protest the school’s investments in the fossil fuel industry. The protest began during the game’s half-time show when 70 protestors took to the field. At its peak, the protest included up to 500 people. The disruption delayed the game for roughly an hour.
Calling on Harvard and Yale to divest fossil fuel investments, protesters held up banners that read “Nobody wins. Yale and Harvard are complicit in climate injustice.” Protesters chanted “disclose, divest and reinvest”, while police demanded via loudspeaker that they leave the field. According to reports, spectators and some players joined activists during the protest. The Harvard Crimson reports the protest continued until the police made arrests. According to a Yale spokesperson, police arrested 42 protesters.
Although some spectators joined the protest, others booed during the disruption. According to The New York Times, some attendees shouted: “Drag them off the field!”
The protest attracted widespread attention, including from Democratic presidential candidates. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders both tweeted in support of the demonstration.
Why were students and alumni protesting?
Students and alumni from both schools are concerned that the institutions are profiting from the climate crisis. Activists see divestment protests as a way to pressure the schools into making investments that are more environmentally responsible. They believe that if Harvard and Yale – two of the most elite and wealthy universities in the United States – stop investing in the fossil fuel industry, then other institutions will follow.
The captain of the Harvard football team, Wesley Ogsbury, said both universities were investing in industries that are “destroying our futures.” “When it comes to the climate crisis, no-one wins,” he added. Ogsbury went on to say, “Harvard and Yale can’t claim to truly promote knowledge while at the same time supporting the companies engaged in misleading the public, smearing academics and denying the truth. That’s why we are joining together with our friends at Yale to call for change.”
Aki Ho, a Yale student from Australia joined the protest because her “country is on fire.” She said, “Unprecedented wildfires are ripping through homes right now. Climate change and the climate crisis is an extremely urgent problem.”
Caleb Schwartz, one of the protest organizers whom police arrested on Saturday, told NPR: “We will win this fight, and we will get the university to divest. I truly don’t think it’s a question of if, it’s a question of when. And the more pressure we can put on them, the sooner they will.”
Harvard and Yale disagree with protesters
In a statement released after the protests, Harvard said, “While we agree on the urgency of this global challenge, we respectfully disagree with divestment activists on the means by which a university should confront it.” Instead, Harvard argues it has a climate action plan that “explicitly recognizes what science has made clear: the world must move quickly to end its use of fossil fuels.”
Responding to the protest, Karen N. Peart, a Yale spokesperson, said that the university stood “firmly for the right to free expression.” She added, however, that it was “regrettable that the orchestrated protest came during a time when fellow students were participating in a collegiate career-defining contest and an annual tradition when thousands gather from around the world to enjoy and celebrate the storied traditions of both football programs and universities.”
Harvard has declined to divest for years, despite repeated calls from students and alumni to do so. Yale has made some divestment pledges. Following student protests, the university sold 99% of its $122 million investment in Antero, a fracking-related company.
In 2018, Yale’s chief investment officer, David Swensen, argued divestment was unrealistic. Swensen said, “If we stopped producing fossil fuels today we would all die. We wouldn’t have food. We wouldn’t have transportation. We wouldn’t have heat. We wouldn’t have air conditioning. We wouldn’t have clothes.” He added that “It’s very nice to protest the fact that we have fossil fuel producers in the portfolio, but the real problem is consumption, and every one of us in the room is a consumer.”
Representatives of Harvard make a similar argument. Harvard President Lawrence Bacow said that if the university were to divest, “we would still be dependent on fossil fuels.”
Both schools have argued that by continuing to invest in the fossil fuel industry, they can impact the policies of fossil fuel companies.
Nora Heaphy, a Yale undergraduate who protested on November 23 rejected this claim. According to Heaphy, the belief that universities can “engage with these companies and get them to change their fundamentally extractive business models” is naivety “amounting to gross negligence.”
The divestment movement
The New Yorker describes divestment as a movement “which urges public and private institutions and subnational governments to curtail investment in companies that extract fossil fuels as a way to rein in the effects of climate change.”
The fossil fuel divestment movement started on college campuses around 2011. It has since become a global movement. More than a thousand organizations and individuals controlling $8.8 trillion in combined assets have committed to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.
Divestment is part of a wider movement to combat the climate crisis. Other strategies include the Extinction Rebellion protests and the Green New Deal.
Action to combat the climate crisis has intensified, following scientific reports that say humanity has 12 years or less to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees celsius or face “risks to health, livelihoods, food security, water supply, human security, and economic growth.”