Desmond Tutu Supports Harvard Students’ Carbon Divestment Push

The archbishop and civil rights leader has added his voice to the call for the university’s endowment to sell its fossil fuel holdings.


South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a hero of the antiapartheid movement. Recently the human rights activist has been speaking out for another cause: climate change. Once again he’s standing with student protesters.

Environmental activists, students and members of the carbon divestment movement were delighted when, in early March, Tutu joined a list of Harvard University alumni, faculty and students calling for a week of civil disobedience to draw attention to the climate crisis. Starting on Sunday, April 12, this group and other supporters will gather at the university’s Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus. In particular they will make another appeal for Harvard’s $35 billion endowment to shed its investments in fossil fuel companies.

Students, labor and religious institutions led the effort to have U.S. and other institutional investors sell their holdings in any companies doing business in South Africa during the apartheid regime, the system of racial segregation in place from 1948 to 1994. That movement was an important way for Americans and other global citizens to register their protest of apartheid. Many historians believe divestment and the isolation of South Africa played a major role in ending the policy.

Harvard was among the institutions most involved in the South Africa debate, though in the end it chose not to divest. So Tutu’s support for the carbon divestment push at the university has special meaning for those involved — all the more so because the carbon movement, which started spreading across college campuses and civic institutions in 2013, looked to the campaign against South Africa for inspiration. Its key figures, including Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, and Robert Massie, former president of the New Economy Coalition, took part in or were scholars of the South Africa protests.

“Archbishop Tutu’s moral leadership amplifies the voices of youth, frontline communities, and all those who say that what we are doing to this planet and our people is wrong,” Chloe Maxmin, a co-founder of Harvard Divest, tells Institutional Investor. “The only moral thing to do now is to take action and use every tool in our power to address the climate crisis.”

Tutu, 83, has called climate change “the human rights challenge of our time.” For the archbishop and many social and environmental activists, a warming planet presents a social justice crisis and an environmental one because the poor and disenfranchised will suffer the most.

“The most devastating effects of climate change — deadly storms, heat waves, droughts, rising food prices and the advent of climate refugees — are being visited on the world’s poor,” Tutu wrote in a September 2014 op-ed for the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper. “Those who have no involvement in creating the problem are the most affected, while those with the capacity to arrest the slide dither. Africans, who emit far less carbon than the people of any other continent, will pay the steepest price. It is a deep injustice.”

This March the Guardian, working with environmental activist group, launched its own campaign asking two of the world’s largest foundations, the Seattle-based, $43.5 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Britain’s $28 billion Wellcome Trust, to divest their carbon holdings.

So far, Harvard has resisted calls to divest its endowment from firms that extract, develop or burn fossil fuel deposits. Student activists and their allies hope that the week of protests can still change Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust’s mind.