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Harvard Students Expand Blockade Calling for School to Divest from Fossil Fuels

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Students at Harvard University have expanded their blockade of key administration offices while calling on the school to divest from fossil fuels. Harvard has the largest endowment of any university in the world, at $36.4 billion. The protest began on Sunday when students began blockading Massachusetts Hall, the school’s central administrative building. Several alumni of Harvard have also taken part in the blockade including Bill McKibben, the founder of the group 350.org, and former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth. We speak to sophomore Talia Rothstein, one of the coordinators of Divest Harvard, and Harvard science professor Naomi Oreskes.

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NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Harvard, where students are continuing to blockade key administration offices while calling on the school to divest from fossil fuels. Harvard has the largest endowment of any university in the world, at $36.4 billion. The protest began on Sunday when students began blockading Massachusetts Hall, the school’s central administrative building. Several alumni of Harvard have also taken part in the blockade, including Bill McKibben, the founder of the group 350.org and former Colorado Senator Tim Wirth. The protests are being organized by the group Divest Harvard, which produced this video.

DIVEST HARVARD VIDEO: We are Divest Harvard. We’re students, faculty, alumni and members of the community, calling on Harvard to divest from fossil fuel companies in order to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and open up space for political action on climate change. Fossil fuel divestment means taking your money out of investments in fossil fuels and instead putting it into more socially responsible companies. Our message is simple: If it’s wrong to wreck the planet and threaten millions of lives, then it’s wrong to profit from that destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, whose office is in the blockaded Mass Hall, has spoken against divestment. In 2013, she said the endowment should not be seen as a, quote, “instrument to impel social or political change.” Harvard University did not respond to Democracy Now!'s request for a university representative to join us for today's discussion, but we are joined by two guests.

Talia Rothstein is one of the coordinators of Divest Harvard. She’s been participating in a blockade of Mass Hall. She’s a sophomore at Harvard College. And Naomi Oreskes is with us, history of science professor, affiliated professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Her 2004 essay, “The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change,” was widely cited, including by Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. And she’s co-author of The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future and the book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! But I want to go right to Talia, to begin with. Thank you for coming off campus to engage in this interview, but tell us what’s happening on campus right now.

TALIA ROTHSTEIN: Sure. Good morning. Thank you so much for having me. This morning, we expanded our blockade. We’ve been—as you said, we’ve been holding down a blockade of Massachusetts Hall, which is the main administrative building, since Sunday evening. But this morning, students and alumni also blockaded University Hall, starting at 6:00 a.m., and we’re holding it throughout the day, and culminating by surrounding University Hall this evening, holding hands.

AMY GOODMAN: And why are you doing this?

TALIA ROTHSTEIN: So, our campaign started a few years ago to try to open up conversation with Harvard about the impact of its investments in the fossil fuel industry. We’ve been repeatedly refused open dialogue of the kind we feel this issue deserves, and ostracized by the Harvard administration. They refuse to engage on this issue. For a few years, we attempted to create a space for dialogue and inevitably had to resort to civil disobedience to put as much public pressure on the Harvard administration as possible.

So, last spring, we blockaded the office of the president, as well, and a student was arrested after a day and a half. A few months ago, we occupied Massachusetts Hall for 24 hours and again received no significant consideration on the issue. And so, this week, called Harvard Heat Week, we’re assembling all the constituents of the movement—students, faculty, alumni, community members—to show the broad base of support, the range of diverse voices that support this movement, and to make sure that the Harvard administration can no longer ignore this issue of climate justice.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Professor Naomi Oreskes, could you talk about what you think the significance is of these actions at Harvard this week and what the argument is for Harvard University to divest from fossil fuels?

NAOMI ORESKES: I think the significance of these events is that there’s a disconnect between what we say we know and believe about climate change and how we’re acting. So, many people on campus, including our president and some of our most distinguished campus leaders, have said many times publicly that they know that climate change is real, that they accept the scientific evidence and that they feel a great sense of urgency about the issue, and yet that isn’t followed up by any action even remotely commensurate with that sense of urgency. So, for me, it’s this disconnect, a kind of incoherence between what we say we—what we say we know about climate change, and yet our failure to really act in the kinds of ways that would be commensurate with what we need to do.

In terms of the argument for divestment, for me, there’s two key things. It’s not so much for me about stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry. I think they’ve already stigmatized themselves. So, in our book, Merchants of Doubt, and in the film that we’ve just made about it, we document a long, really terrible history, going back to the 1980s and before, actually going back to the 1950s, of industry trying to deny and discredit scientific information relating to all kinds of issues, not just climate change, but tobacco, acid rain, the ozone hole. And what we show is that the fossil fuel industry has played a major role in these campaigns to discredit scientific information. So, at Harvard, like many great universities, we do research, we do scholarship. We are committed. Our purpose, our mission is teaching, research, learning, scholarship. And yet these industries have worked, directly, consciously, deliberately, to undermine the very work that we do at these institutions. So, for me, that’s a key part of the argument. How can we be investing in corporations that are trying to undermine the very thing that we do?

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Oreskes, you were on a panel. How is the university responding? We couldn’t get them to come on the show, but they flew in Charlie Rose—is that right?—to moderate a panel that you were on, as well as representatives of Harvard University’s administration position.

NAOMI ORESKES: The panel was wonderful in many ways. Charlie Rose is a very gracious man, a wonderful person, wonderful interviewer. We had excellent, outstanding people on the panel, like Chris Field, the head of Working Group II of the IPCC, and John Holdren, the president’s science adviser. So it was a wonderful panel.

But, in my opinion, there were two things missing. One, there was no student voice. That seemed like a pretty conspicuous omission. And two, as I mentioned already, there was no real discussion of what the solution looks like. And to say, “Well, we should just continue doing more research and education,” flies in the face of what we know, as I just said, about the ways in which the fossil fuel industry and other allies, including utilities, even at times the automobile manufacturers, have really colluded to undermine our own work. And that, that reality, that acknowledgment, there was no discussion of what we should be doing in response to that. For me, divestment is a logical conclusion from my own scholarship, from my own research. But my view is, if you don’t support divestment, then you ought to be proposing some kind of concrete, substantive alternative. And that, to me, was missing from the conversation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Talia Rothstein, could you talk about—even though the administration hasn’t come out and said anything explicitly to you about the protests that have been going on this week, you’ve noted that campus police, etc., have given you very few problems in these protests, unprecedented compared to similar protests in the past. Could you talk about that?

TALIA ROTHSTEIN: Sure. So I think the administration has recognized at this point that we have a strong and ever-growing coalition of support behind us. And that’s been more readily apparent this week during Harvard Heat Week than it has at any of our other protests. And I think it shows something pretty significant, that the administration top decision makers at Harvard really fear serious engagement with this issue and talking about the impacts of their investments in the fossil fuel industry, to the extent that they would rather have us shut down buildings, disrupt administrative proceedings, create sort of a huge media storm around this issue, rather than seriously engage with us. And I think we have a great relationship with the Harvard University police. They’re just getting their orders from above. And they really—the decision makers at Harvard have chosen to leave us alone and really hide from this issue and from our voices this week.

AMY GOODMAN: Talia, earlier this month, Harvard President Drew Faust announced the creation of the Harvard University Climate Change Solutions Fund, the fund intended to promote research that accelerates the transition to renewable sources of energy. Your thoughts?

TALIA ROTHSTEIN: Yeah, I think, sort of as Professor Oreskes alluded to just now, Harvard is doing great research and really should be commended for its efforts to reduce emissions on its campus and to create opportunities for students to really talk about the solutions to climate change. But there’s sort of an integral piece that we’re missing, which is that the fossil fuel industry is not only at the heart of climate change, but also—and not only exploits already marginalized communities by propagating climate change, but also really has a chokehold over our political system in its funding of climate deniers and in its propagation of a massive campaign to spread doubt about climate change. So, until Harvard is able to fully reckon with that, with that problem, and align its investments with the values of its institution—you know, the motto of Harvard is Veritas, truth. And it’s really astounding that at a university which sort of seeks to train the next generation of leaders, we aren’t thinking critically about the impacts of where the money of Harvard’s endowment is going and how that is actually impacting the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Talia Rothstein, we want to thank you for being with us, sophomore at Harvard, one of the coordinators of Divest Harvard, and Professor Naomi Oreskes, who teaches history of science, affiliate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Harvard University. Her books include The Collapse of Western Civilization and Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.

That does it for our show. We have a job opening, social media producer. Go to our website at democracynow.org.

And next Thursday, April 23rd, at 7:00 p.m., I’ll be speaking at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Go to our website for more information.

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