Frustrated and anxious, climate advocates are turning to legal action. The latest petitioners: College students
A coalition of students from Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt working with the nonprofit Climate Defense Project filed legal complaints in February to compel their universities to end their financial relationships with the fossil fuel industry.
In the complaints, students alleged their schools are violating the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Acts, a state law which states a nonprofit’s investments must align with its “charitable purpose.”
The complaints, all filed with their state attorneys general on the same day, contend fossil fuel companies, by polluting the environment and engaging in public relations campaigns to undermine climate science, stand in conflict to the missions of their universities.
“We’re witnessing this unprecedented wave of litigation, where individuals are going to court to hold certain actors to account for the damages they are suffering and the damages they will suffer,” said Karen Sokol, distinguished professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans.
Sokol attributed the rise in climate cases to the increasing harms of global warming — including severe weather disasters and the resulting destruction — along with the public’s growing awareness of the problem.
“Whenever harms and damages mount simultaneously with an increase in public awareness, people tend to seek redress in the courts,” Sokol told CNN. “That’s what we’re seeing.”
CNN reached out to the respective attorneys general offices, two of which — Massachusetts’ and Connecticut’s — confirmed they received and are reviewing the student complaints. New Jersey’s Attorney General’s office declined to comment, and the offices of Tennessee and California did not respond.
None of the universities have directly responded to the complaints, the students told CNN. In emails to CNN, representatives from Stanford, Princeton, Yale and MIT pointed to 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, by 2050. Some are also seeking net-zero emissions in their investment portfolios, or have ethical investment principles rendering certain fossil fuel companies ineligible for investment.
Stanford is seeking to reach net-zero emissions in both operations and investments by 2050, according to university communications executive Dee Mostofi, who also told CNN the university’s investments “fully comply with all applicable laws regulating charities in California.” Mostofi also highlighted the university’s investments in clean energy and transportation.
For the Stanford students, the promises and policies are not enough.
“‘Net-zero’ means Stanford could still be invested in fossil fuels and just be offsetting it in ways that aren’t really sufficient,” said Miriam Wallstrom, a junior at Stanford and an organizer with Fossil Free Stanford. “As a member of the generation that both has to do the most to fight the climate crisis and will also suffer the most in terms of severe weather events, it’s terrifying and frustrating that the institution I go to hasn’t divested, especially when so many peer institutions have.”
Students also emphasized their universities may have conflicts of interest preventing them from fairly responding to student climate demands.
Yale students similarly note four trustees of Yale Corporation — the charitable corporate entity managing the school’s roughly $42 billion endowment — have ties to the fossil fuel industry. Three current or former trustees serve, or have recently served, as board members for oil and gas companies, while one was the CEO of a prominent energy company.
Neither the Yale Corporation nor Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
“The core part of our campaign has been saying that investing in fossil fuels is immoral,” said Molly Weiner, a Yale freshman and an organizer with Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition. “But the moral argument is only going to get us so far given that the people who make these investment decisions personally benefit.”
Weiner also pointed to a discrepancy between where Yale spends research funds and how it allocates part of its endowment.
“Yale is putting a lot of money into climate research,” said Weiner, an environmental studies major. “But that is 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 Climate Defense Project, is hopeful Yale and the other universities will decide to divest on their own volition. Alternatively, he said, the state attorneys general could issue enforcement orders mandating universities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. Such action would be unprecedented.
Some cases have been successful.
“There’s this momentum,” said Sokol, speaking of the successful international cases. “Courts are carving out their role in our new climate reality.”