Environmental activist and former Vice President Al Gore endorsed the group of Harvard students who are pressing the University to divest from fossil fuels, in a speech he gave at the University on Wednesday.
Hannah Borowsky, a member of Students for a Just and Stable Future, the group that is advocating for Harvard to divest, said that before Gore spoke she handed him a letter, which asked him to support the issue of divestment at Harvard. Borowsky said she volunteered to work as a coat checker, in the hopes that she would have the opportunity to talk with Gore. When he walked toward the coat check, Borowsky knew she had her chance.
“He shook my hand, and after I found the words I reached into my back pocket and gave him the letter, and he said he would read it,” said Borowsky, a sophomore.
Then about halfway through the speech, Gore addressed the issue of divestment.
“Students here at Harvard have raised the question of divestment,” Gore said in the speech, which elicited applause from the audience. “I cannot fail to address the issue, even at the risk of sounding impolite and undiplomatic.”
Gore said that he served on the Harvard Board of Overseers during apartheid, when activists were pressuring the administration to divest from South Africa-related stock. Gore said he was approached by a group of student activists, “who were fighting for divestment by Harvard of stocks implicated in the apartheid system in South Africa recruited me to be a part of their slate.”
“Having served on the board during the time when Harvard wrestled with this question, I have some advice for the students. First of all, if I were a student I would support what you’re doing. But if I was a board member I would do what I did when we took up the apartheid issue. This is an opportunity for learning and the raising of awareness, for the discussion of sustainable capitalism.”
Video footage of Gore giving a speech at Harvard was uploaded to YouTube on Thursday. A Harvard official who reviewed the footage confirmed that it appeared to be of Gore’s inaugural Paul R. Epstein Memorial Lecture at the Memorial Church on Feb. 6. Also, the Harvard Gazette story on the speech quoted Gore, and his statements were repeated in the footage.
The Gazette wrote that in the inaugural speech Gore mentioned the student-led divestment groups, but that he also said institutions should guard endowment returns that enable them to do their work.
According to the Gazette, Gore said that, “it is a difficult question for nonprofits and universities and you will find even environmental groups that are passionately committed to doing the right thing, when it comes to protecting … their endowment, they want to make sure they don’t put it at risk so they can keep using it for the good purposes it was established for — totally understandable.”
Alli Welton, who is also a member of the Harvard chapter for Students for a Just and Stable Future, said the Gazette took the quote out of context.
“After making the point, he said that one could get good returns from sustainable investments,” Welton said.
A statement issued by Harvard University in December said that, “as we have stated before, the University has a strong presumption against divestment."
The statement also said that the University Corporation’s Committee on Shareholder Responsibility, a subcommittee one of Harvard’s governing boards, planned to meet with students in the Harvard’s chapter of Students for a Just and Stable Future next semester. According to the SJSF chapter, the group has met with the Committee but no decision has been made.
Student climate change activists at a number of campuses around the U.S., including Tufts University, Boston University, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are calling for their universities to divest endowment holdings in oil and gas stocks. The Harvard Crimson reported that in an undergraduate election in November, 72 percent of students who voted supported divestment.
Borowsky said that when Gore mentioned the divestment efforts at Harvard, she and other members of SJSF were holding hands and cheering.
“We were trying to get people engaged in this movement,” she said. “And Al Gore seemed like a great place to start.”
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