Students File Legal Complaints Against University Fossil Fuel Investments
A coalition of Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt students working with the nonprofit Climate Defense Project filed lawsuits in February to force their universities to end their financial relationships with the fossil fuel industry.
In the complaints, the students alleged that their schools violated the Uniform Laws for the Prudent Management of Institutional Funds, a state law that states that a nonprofit organization’s investments must align with its “purpose charity”.
The complaints, all filed with their attorneys general on the same day, argue that fossil fuel companies, by polluting the environment and engaging in public relations campaigns to undermine climate science, are in conflict with the missions of their universities.
“We are seeing this unprecedented wave of litigation, where individuals are going to court to hold certain actors accountable for the damages they suffer and the damages they will suffer,” said Karen Sokol, eminent professor of law at the Loyola University of New Orleans. .
Sokol attributed the rise in climate cases to the growing harms of global warming — including severe weather disasters and the resulting destruction — as well as growing public awareness of the problem.
“Whenever harms and damages increase simultaneously with an increase in public awareness, people tend to seek redress in court,” Sokol told CNN. “That’s what we see.”
CNN contacted the respective attorney general’s offices, two of which — those in Massachusetts and Connecticut — confirmed they had received and reviewed the students’ complaints. The New Jersey attorney general’s office declined to comment, and the Tennessee and California offices did not respond.
None of the universities directly responded to the complaints, the students told CNN. In emails to CNN, representatives from Stanford, Princeton, Yale and MIT highlighted their universities’ recent efforts to mitigate climate change. Vanderbilt did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Each of the universities has also released detailed plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions on their campuses by a target date of 2050. Some are also pursuing net zero emissions in their investment portfolios, or have principles ethical investment rules making certain fossil fuel companies ineligible for investment.
Stanford seeks to achieve net-zero emissions in operations and investments by 2050, according to university communications manager Dee Mostofi, who also told CNN that the university’s investments “fully comply with all applicable laws. Governing Charities in California”. Mostofi also highlighted the university’s investments in clean energy and transportation.
For Stanford students, promises and policies are not enough.
“‘Net-zero’ means that Stanford could still invest in fossil fuels and just offset it in ways that aren’t really good enough,” said Miriam Wallstrom, a Stanford junior and Fossil Free Stanford organizer. “As a member of the generation that both has to do the most to tackle the climate crisis and will also suffer the most in terms of severe weather events, it is terrifying and frustrating that the institution I am going to will not has not divested, especially when many peer institutions have done so.”
Students also pointed out that their universities may have conflicts of interest preventing them from responding fairly to the demands of the student climate.
Yale students also note that four trustees of Yale Corporation — the charitable entity that manages the school’s roughly $42 billion endowment — have ties to the fossil fuel industry. Three current or former directors serve or recently served on the boards of oil and gas companies, while one was the CEO of a major energy company.
Neither the Yale Corporation nor the Yale Investor Responsibility Advisory Committee responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
“The central part of our campaign has been to say that investing in fossil fuels is immoral,” said Molly Weiner, a freshman at Yale and an organizer for Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition. “But the moral argument will only get us so far given that the people who make these investment decisions personally benefit.”
Weiner also pointed to a disconnect between where Yale spends research funds and how it allocates some of its endowment.
“Yale invests a lot of money in climate research,” said Weiner, an environmental studies student. “But that’s rendered moot by the fact that the university has $800 million in the fossil fuel industry. They basically cancel each other out.”
Ted Hamilton, co-founder of the Climate Defense Project, hopes Yale and other universities will decide to divest of their own accord. Alternatively, he said, state attorneys general could issue enforcement orders requiring universities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. Such an action would be unprecedented.
Some cases have been successful.
“There is this momentum,” Sokol said, speaking of successful international cases. “Courts are carving out a role for themselves in our new climate reality.”