The power of football game protests

The climate justice protest at the Harvard-Yale football game was remarkably successful, and provides a lesson for activists down the road.

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

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If you are a person who celebrates Thanksgiving, Happy Thanksgiving week. I hope you’re ready for the massive amount of sodium you’re likely going to consume on Thursday.

I went looking for “Ways to feel better after eating a high-sodium meal,” and I came across this article in Cooking Light, which literally recommends drinking a glass of water, eating a banana, and doing some form of light exercise. Regular HEATED readers will recall that this is EXACTLY WHAT I NORMALLY RECOMMEND YOU DO EVERY MONDAY. I am a health genius. Please clap.

Also, shout-out to those who choose to mourn the continued disparities between Native and non-Native communities in America on Thanksgiving instead of “celebrating” the day.


A brief housekeeping note: This week is going to be a short one, because I’m at home in New York with my family for the holiday. You’ll only get HEATED in your inbox today and Tuesday. There’s a chance you’ll get something on Wednesday, but it will likely just be pictures of gluten-free pie.

Relatedly, if you have any Thanksgiving recipes you’d like to share—gluten-free or otherwise—send them to emily@heated.world. As always, you can send thoughts, questions, story ideas, and tips there, too.

42 climate justice protesters arrested at Harvard-Yale football game

Now that’s what I call a halftime show.

On Saturday, the annual Yale-Harvard football game was delayed for over an hour by hundreds of people who stormed the field to demand climate action from the universities. At least 42 people were arrested and charged in the demonstrations—including, apparently, 79-year-old Law & Order/Grace and Frankie star Sam Waterson. (Hell yeah, Sam!)

Organized by two groups—Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition—the protest aimed to put pressure on the institutions to pull their investments in the fossil fuel industry and Puerto Rican debt. Combined, the universities endowments are worth about $70 billion—and each continue to grow at a rate of more than $8 million per day, thanks in part to those investments.

It was a remarkably successful act of civil disobedience. The interruption received widespread coverage from outlets like The New York Times, CNN, NPR, the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Vox, and TMZ—not to mention all the big sports networks. The protesters also grabbed the attention of the Democratic presidential field, with at least three candidates tweeting in support of their efforts.

Of course, not everyone was supportive of the demonstration. It was in the middle of a football game, after all—and you know how people are when it comes to football.

“Some fans booed and said the protest humiliated the schools,” the Washington Post reported, and quoted a 68-year-old man named Chuck Crummie who said the students on the field were “supposed to be intelligent people.”

“It looks like there’s a lot of common sense that has missed their generation,” he reportedly said. “It goes to show that this generation is all about themselves and not a football game.”

School administrators didn’t like it much either. In an emailed statement to the Harvard Crimson, Ivy League spokesperson Matthew J. Planto said it was "regrettable" that students’ concerns over the planet’s livability interrupted such a good game of sportsball.

"It is 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," Planto wrote.

In reality, though, interrupting a football game was probably the smartest thing the Ivy League protesters could have done. It was the most attention the cause of divestment has gotten in years.

For years, calls for divestment at Harvard and Yale meant with apathetic resistance

Both universities have been called out for hypocrisy on the issue of divestment before. Harvard, in particular, got a pretty brutal call-out from The Washington Post earlier this year, when it ran a story headlined “Harvard says fighting climate change is a top priority. But it still won’t divest from fossil fuels.

Harvard University prides itself on being on the cutting edge of climate policy and research. Its students and faculty have deployed drones over the Amazon, worked on a “bionic leaf” to turn sunlight and water into fuel and fertilizer, and searched for a cheaper electrochemical method of capturing carbon dioxide.

But there’s at least one step on climate change that Harvard has not taken: divesting the university’s $39 billion endowment of investments in fossil fuels.

Yale, too, has long been facing pressure to rid itself of unethical fossil fuel investments, primarily from the Yale Endowment Justice Coalition. The group’s website pulls no punches; this is the first image you see when you get there:

"Fossil fuels have been the energy that we have used since hominids came on this earth, but we do not need to be Neanderthals in terms of understanding what we need to do moving forward," former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy—now a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—said earlier this year. "So let's invest where our health is. Let's invest where justice belongs. Let's invest in the future, not the past."

Still, both institutions have long resisted divestment. Harvard first rejected divesting from fossil fuels in 2013, and in 2014, Yale said divestment from fossil fuels was not warranted. Though climate change was at “the forefront of social responsibility issues,” the university said it would be “misdirected” to blame fossil fuel companies for it, because in reality, consumers are to blame.

“Targeting fossil fuel suppliers for divestment, while ignoring the damage caused by consumers, is misdirected,” the Yale statement said. “Given the world’s current (and growing) energy needs, modern society could not exist without fossil fuel consumption. Life’s basic necessities, including food and shelter, require petroleum-based products and services.”

Harvard officials make similar arguments. "The University’s position, as it has stated previously, is that it should not use the endowment to achieve political ends, or particular policy ends," Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said recently.

Both arguments are pretty bad. Life’s basic necessities, including food and shelter, require energy. They do not necessarily require fossil-fuel energy. It is only because of the decades-long fossil fuel industry-funded disinformation campaign around climate science that our transition to non-fossil fuel energy didn’t begin sooner. And solving climate change by transitioning away from fossil fuels isn’t a “political” or “policy” goal. It’s a necessity in line with the scientific consensus around climate change. If we are to prevent catastrophic warming, it has to happen.

In the Trump era, divestment is a way to make meaningful change

Harvard and Yale may still be resisting divestment, but other institutions are not. As the Post reported earlier this year:

More than 1,070 institutions in more than 30 countries, with total assets of about $8.8 trillion, have divested themselves of fossil fuel shares since a divestment campaign began about nine years ago, according to the website GoFossilFree.org. Some, including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, have sold their stakes in all fossil fuel companies. Others, including Georgetown University, have sold off coal and tar sands investments only.

Most recently, in September, the University of California system said it would cut fossil fuels from its $80 billion endowment, because of the financial risks of funding continued climate change.

Climate activists see this is a meaningful way to move the needle in an era where climate change policy is all but nonexistent at the federal level.

“Divestment is a tactic,” Ilana Cohen, a student in Harvard’s class of 2022 and lead coordinator of the Fossil Free Divest Harvard campaign, told Vox. “Justice is our goal.”

You can read more about the divestment movement, and the strategy behind it, HERE.

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