In February, a group of students from Yale, MIT and Princeton filed legal complaints against Vanderbilt in an effort to force their universities into ending their financial relationships to the fossil fuel industry.
Students complained that their schools violated the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Acts. A state law states that investments made by nonprofits must align with their “charitable purpose.”
All the complaints were filed with the state attorneys general the same day. They allege that fossil fuel companies pollute the environment and engage in public relations campaigns to undermine climate science. This is in direct conflict with the mission of their universities.
Karen Sokol, a distinguished professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans, said, “We’re witnessing an unprecedented wave in litigation, where individuals will go to court for certain actors to account the damages they are experiencing and the damages to come,”
Sokol said that the increase in climate cases can be attributed to the growing harms of global warming, including severe weather events and the resulting destruction, as well as the public’s increasing awareness of the problem.
CNN’s Sokol said that when harms and damage mount simultaneously with increased public awareness, people will seek redress in court. “That’s exactly what we’re seeing.”
CNN reached out to their respective attorneys general offices. Two of them — Connecticut’s and Massachusetts’ — confirmed that they had received the student complaints and are currently reviewing them. The New Jersey Attorney General’s office declined comment. California’s and Tennessee’s offices didn’t respond.
CNN received no response from any of the universities to the students’ complaints. Representatives from Yale Yale, Princeton, Yale and MIT referred to recent climate change mitigation efforts by their universities in emails to CNN. CNN reached Vanderbilt for comment but they did not respond.
Each university has released detailed plans to reduce carbon emissions on campuses by a specific date, namely 2050. Others are seeking net-zero carbon emissions in their investment portfolios or have ethical investment principles that render certain fossil fuel companies uninvestable.
According to Dee Mostofi, a university communications executive, Stanford wants to achieve net zero emissions in its operations and investments by 2050. Mostofi also said that Stanford’s investments are “fully compliant with all applicable laws regulating California charities.” Mostofi also spoke out in support of the university’s investments into clean energy and transportation.
The Stanford students know that the policies and promises are not enough.
Miriam Wallstrom is a junior at Stanford and organizer for Fossil Free Stanford. “Net-zero” means Stanford could still invest in fossil fuels. This would be offset in ways that aren’t really sufficient,” she said. “As a member the generation that will have to do the most to combat the climate crisis, and also suffer the most from severe weather events, it’s frightening and frustrating that the institution that I go to hasn’t divested, especially considering how many of my peers have done so.”
Students also highlighted that universities may have conflicts-of-interest that prevent them from adequately responding to student climate demands.
Yale students also note that four trustees of Yale Corporation, the charitable corporate entity responsible for managing the school’s $42 billion endowment, have ties to fossil fuels. Three of the current or former trustees are currently or recently board members for oil-and-gas companies, while one was CEO of a prominent energy firm.
CNN reached out to Yale Corporation and Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility for no comment.
Molly Weiner (a Yale freshman and organizer with Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition) stated, “The core of our campaign has been saying investing in fossil fuels was immoral.” “But the moral argument will only get us so far because the people who make these investments decisions personally benefit.”
Weiner also pointed out a discrepancy between Yale’s spending of research funds, and how it allocates a portion of its endowment.
Weiner, an environmental studies major, said that Yale is investing a lot in climate research. “But that is made moot by $800 million in fossil fuel industry funds at Yale. They are almost incompatible.”
Ted Hamilton, cofounder of Climate Defense Project, hopes Yale and other universities will decide to divest themselves. He said that state attorneys general could issue orders mandating universities not to invest in fossil fuel industries. This would be a rare move.
Some cases have been successful.
Sokol spoke of the success stories in international cases and said, “There’s this momentum.” “Courts are defining their role in our new climate reality.”