FFDH Legal Strategy Spreads Around Nation
Students at Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and Vanderbilt Argue that Fossil Fuel Investments Aren’t Just Immoral, but Illegal
Last March, members of the Harvard community helped develop a legal strategy holding that the school’s fossil fuel investments weren’t just immoral, but illegal — a step that played a massive role in forcing the university to divest a few months later. Now, the legal movement is spreading, with students at Yale, Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and Vanderbilt taking steps to hold their own schools accountable for their dangerous investments earlier this month.
More press coverage can be found in the Washington Post, The Guardian, Grist, The Hill, and Inside Higher Ed
As with the Harvard case (and a seminal filing at Boston College in December), the five schools’ actions took the form of official complaints referring the institutions’ breaches of fiduciary duty for investigation and enforcement to the respective state attorneys general. The complaints, which are signed by a number of top climate scientists, financial experts, and legal scholars, note that fossil fuel holdings, are a dangerous long-term bet, fail to align with legal mandates surrounding charitable purposes, and often create significant conflicts of interest among members of university governance.
“Our universities are amongst the world’s wealthiest and most prestigious institutions of higher education, and their investments in the fossil fuel industry — an industry whose actions place the health and future of students and the entire planet at risk — amount to nothing less than complicity in the climate crisis,” said Anna Liebowitz, an organizer with Divest Princeton.
Students at the five schools say that their decision to pursue this route was driven in large part by the success of this tactic at Harvard. For ten years prior to the filing, the university had made a policy of steadfastly refusing divestment, despite mounting evidence that such a stance was putting Harvard’s own institutional interests (and its endowment’s own bottom line) at risk. Although the university tried to ignore the complaint — in statements, spokespeople swore that the investments were prudent, and in interviews, Harvard leadership turned to extreme right-wing legal scholarship to dismiss the complaint’s arguments — experts say that it likely played a very significant role in forcing Harvard to commit to divestment last semester.
As a result of the Harvard victory, the legal landscape on fiduciary duty in an age of climate crisis is already shifting, and the five complaints are expected to contribute to growing momentum on this legal front. “The law can be a powerful ally in fighting climate change, but only if people are held accountable for actually following it. Universities have a duty to promote the public interest in exchange for their tax-exempt charitable status, and that duty is incompatible with fossil fuel investments,” said Alex Marquardt, a staff attorney at Climate Defense Project.
But while Harvard is beating these five peers on divestment, it continues to pass up opportunities to be a genuine leader on climate, say students. From advocating for an end to oil conflicts of interest in Harvard research to ensuring that the university fulfills its climate pledges and pursues just reinvestment of its resources, Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard continues to push for an institution that fulfills its potential and stands on the right side of this fight for a just and stable future.
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