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200 Protesters Block Building Entrance to Kick Off Harvard 'Heat Week' Demanding Divestment from Fossil Fuels

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200 Protesters Block Building Entrance to Kick Off Harvard 'Heat Week' Demanding Divestment from Fossil Fuels

Harvard University will be feeling the heat this week. That's because April 12-17 was designated "Heat Week" by Divest Harvard, the student-led group which also includes alumni, faculty and friends, demanding that the university divest its $36 billion endowment—the largest of any university in the world—from funds that invest in fossil fuels.

Harvard students and supporters file into First Parish for a rally prior to their Heat Week divestment protest. Photo credit: Divest Harvard

According to the student newspaper the Harvard Crimson, the protest began 7:30 p.m. Sunday when about 200 supporters gathered in front of Massachusetts Hall, an administration building that houses the office of university president Drew Faust. That followed a packed rally at First Parish where speakers addressed the crowd and fired them up to march to Massachusetts Hall.

The paper described the scene:

"At the rally, climate activists, many of whom were accessorized in neon orange scarves, buttons and headbands, sang protest songs in support of the students blocking the Mass. Hall doors. Protest leaders including environmental activist Bill E. McKibben ’82, the leader of the environmental group 350.org and a former Crimson president, and former Colorado Sen. Tim Wirth spoke to the crowd, encouraging the members to support the blockade throughout the week."

"Climate change is moving quickly, and we need action now,” McKibben told the Crimson. “[The protest] is a chance for us to remind Harvard to do more than talk.”

Divest Harvard co-founder Chloe E. Maxmin, class of ’15, said that protestors were ready and willing to be arrested if it came to that. One member of the group was arrested last May for blocking a door at Massachusetts Hall.

Divest Harvard kicked off the week by releasing a statement that said, "Tonight Harvard students, faculty and alumni assembled in peaceful, civil disobedience around Massachusetts Hall to launch Harvard Heat Week—a week of action for fossil fuel divestment. As climate change threatens to become the worst humanitarian crisis that humans have ever faced, we ask all students to join us this week in the movement for climate justice. In this historic moment, Harvard confronts a choice that will influence its legacy for hundreds of years. Will it continue to endorse the fossil fuel industry’s destructive practices? Or will it act to ensure a livable future for young people, future generations, already-marginalized communities, and all those on the frontlines of climate chaos?"

The group announced the weeklong "Heat Week" protest in February, following a 24-hour occupation of Massachusetts Hall. It is an escalation of the tactics Divest Harvard has been deploying since it formed in 2012. Faust has dismissed their demands, saying that the university will instead address climate change through research and education. She also refused to hold an open meeting where anyone could ask questions about divestment.

"This direct action comes after two and a half years of interactions with an administration that avoids engagement with student activism at all costs," Divest Harvard reported in February. "So we began our sit-in in the hopes that we could bring our voices and urgency directly to the doorstop of President Faust. It worked: by mid-morning, she was compelled to respond–a first in our experience with the administration. Yet despite that minor victory, her words made it clear she had no sincere interest in working with us. Instead, she issued an ultimatum that was intended to cut short our direct action, and she called our presence and our passion 'coercive.'”

“Peaceful protest is absolutely a part of our campus and they have every right to peacefully protest. They don't have the right to stop university business,” Faust said in March.

“The administration has consistently ostracized Divest Harvard and used ever-changing statements about why they’re not divesting,” Maxmin told the Crimson. “We're actually not that radical. We’re not insane. We’re genuinely frightened for our futures and truly believe that Harvard is sponsoring some of that fear.”

Speakers throughout the week include:

  • Reverend Lennox Yearwood (founder, Hip-Hop Caucus);
  • Darren Aronofsky (‘91, film director);
  • Bill McKibben (‘82, co-founder, 350.org);
  • Ferrial Adam (Africa – Arab World Team Leader, 350.org)
  • Koreti Tiumalu (Pacific Coordinator, 350.org)
  • Former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth (‘61);
  • Kelsey Wirth (‘92, founder, Mothers Out Front)
  • Bob Massie (‘89, founder, Investor Network on Climate Risk);
  • Todd Gitlin (‘63, Author, Professor Columbia University);
  • Talia Rothstein (Divest Harvard Organizer);
  • Ted Hamilton (Divest Harvard Organizer); and
  • Jibreel Khazan (participant in the 1960 Greensboro Woolworth’s Civil
  • Rights lunch counter sit-ins); with
  • Performances by Melodeego

More than 1,100 Harvard alumni, including notable figures such as Natalie Portman, Cornel West, Al Gore, and Bevis Longstreth, have signed on to a petition urging the administration to divest its fossil fuel holdings, as well as 72 percent of undergraduate students supporting a referendum vote, more than 65,000 community members and more than 245 faculty members calling for divestment, according to Divest Harvard.

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Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge and Sir David Attenborough look at a piece of ice core from the Antarctic during a naming ceremony for the polar research ship the RSS Sir David Attenborough on Sept. 26, 2019 in Birkenhead, England. Asadour Guzelian - WPA Pool / Getty Images

By Elliot Douglas

In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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