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Students, faculty consider climate action strategy in wake of Harvard-Yale protest

Protest at Harvard-Yale game Saturday gains national attention

The widely covered interruption of Saturday’s annual Harvard-Yale football game by climate activists has prompted members of the University community to reflect on how they can help combat climate change through fossil fuel divestment.

The protest, coordinated by the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition, Fossil Free Yale and Divest Harvard, interrupted one of the Ivy League’s most popular sporting events of the year when over 200 students and alums from both schools occupied the field just before half time. Foremost among the protestors’ chants were calls for both universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuel holdings and Puerto Rican debt.

Operating under #NobodyWins, the two student groups issued a statement after the game, citing the vast influence the two institutions wield with the $71 billion managed between them. The statement read, “We call on Harvard and Yale to fully disclose, divest, and reinvest their holdings in the fossil fuel industry, putting an end to business as usual and taking meaningful action towards building a more just and stable future.”

Responding to the Harvard-Yale protest, Professor of Environmental Studies J. Timmons Roberts underscored the role of student activism in the realm of climate change, telling The Herald, “Students have been the leaders of many protest movements. … Their efforts to awaken their nation’s conscience is responsible for many of the advances we’ve seen in history.” In the arena of combating climate change, elite academic institutions have been “dragging their feet,” he added.

Three students involved with environmental activist and research groups at the University told The Herald that they were shocked at the expanse of the protest and were excited to see student activism attract so much attention. Yesenia Puebla ’21, the co-coordinator of Sunrise Brown and Rhode Island School of Design, told The Herald, “I was super surprised … and glad that it was so effective in getting a lot of media attention.” Puebla added that the protest was equally important in highlighting the lesser-known role elite institutions play in buying Puerto Rican debt.

“What you saw at the protests were people not only recognizing that one of their universities’ biggest impacts in the world is how their money is used, but also really smartly recognizing that as students at universities with vast privilege, we have the ability to conduct protests and target our universities in a way that other people at other schools don’t have the ability to,” said Brown Divest member Ben Bienstock ’20. Brown Divest is leading a campus-wide movement for divestment from companies “complicit in human rights abuses in Palestine.”

Students have previously urged the University to consider a divestment strategy around climate change. In 2014, Fossil Free Brown pushed for the University to divest from its fossil fuel holdings, but the Corporation, the University’s governing body, defended its divestments. This came shortly after the Brown Divest Coal Campaign, the group that would later evolve into Fossil Free Brown, was unable to persuade the University to abandon its coal investments in 2013.

Despite these past roadblocks, some students believe that the Harvard-Yale protest could help augment support for a fossil fuel divestment model at Brown. Cole Triedman ’21, who works at the University’s Climate and Development Lab, recognized the community’s past failures in pushing for divestment but expressed hope that present momentum of climate activism could bolster a resurgence in demands for fossil fuel divestment. “In this moment of environmental activism, divestment movements could proliferate in a way they couldn’t a few years ago. It’s proven to be an effective mechanism in the past,” Triedman said.

Nina Wolff Landau ’20, a member of Environmental Justice at Brown and another co-coordinator for Sunrise Brown and RISD, also expressed support for fossil fuel divestment. “I’m thrilled and support (the protest) and obviously think that Brown should divest from fossil fuels,” Landau told The Herald.

Yet Sunrise Brown and RISD, one of the larger climate activist groups on campus, is unlikely to begin formally advocating for the University to divest from fossil fuel holdings. Puebla, speaking for the group, said they would stay focused on advocating for a Green New Deal in Rhode Island. “We don’t see ourselves doing divestment. … We focus on the Green New Deal at the local level,” she told The Herald. Puebla said the upcoming climate strike organized by Sunrise is one of the group’s priorities: “If we continue to mobilize for the strike, that will be more effective in opening the path to a statewide Green New Deal.” While Sunrise Brown and RISD is likely to avoid a foray into divestment advocacy, Puebla nonetheless said she would “encourage” other groups to push for such policies.

In another comment to The Herald, Roberts said, “The crisis of climate change is getting more apparent, and the action is still wholly inadequate. … The movement is back, and it will keep coming back until we divest.”


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