Senior staff members from the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey have met for a second time with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard (FFDH), as the AG weighs claims that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments aren’t just immoral but illegal.
In March, over 120 scientists, economists, elected officials, Harvard community members, and community organizations filed an official complaint asserting that fossil fuel investments violate the university’s fiduciary and charitable duties under the law. As the complaint points out, the fossil fuel industry’s lies, attacks on scholarship, harm to the public interest, and financial instability make investment in it a clear breach of these legal obligations. Complaint representatives first met with the office in May.
As of the previous fiscal year, Harvard has over $840 million invested in the fossil fuel industry, and its governing board include figures such as one of Exxon’s lead lawyers.
At this second meeting, concerned members of the Harvard community continued the dialogue, provided further insight into Harvard’s failures to comply with the law of the Commonwealth, talked about new evidence that has emerged since filing, and discussed the need for a formal investigation in order to protect the interests of the public. Representing the complaint signatories were Climate Defense Project staff attorney Ted Hamilton (HLS ’16), legal scholar and former SEC Commissioner Bevis Longstreth (HLS ‘61), environmental historian and Harvard professor Joyce Chaplin, and FFDH members Ilana Cohen (College ‘23), Martha Denton (College ‘24), Klara Kuemmerle (College ‘24), Connor Chung (College ‘23), and Joseph Winters (College ‘21).
“The meeting with the Attorney General’s office indicated that the state’s lawyers are taking this matter very seriously,” said Hamilton. “This area of the law has been underdeveloped and underenforced for too long — so it’s gratifying to see state officials finally taking it seriously and exploring the tools they have at hand to address the climate crisis. We’re optimistic that the spirit of the law will finally be realized, and that Massachusetts will do its part to hold powerful institutions accountable.”
The meeting comes in the wake of immense momentum for the divestment movement and yet more stark proof of the fossil fuel industry’s financial and moral unsustainability. From the recent divestment by the State of Maine’s $17 billion pension fund to the International Energy Agency’s warning that no investment in new fossil fuel extraction can occur from now on to the fossil fuel industry’s continued losses in court, the meeting participants made clear that by ignoring the will of its own students, faculty, and alumni, Harvard is harming its own basic interests — and the interests of the public as a whole.
If successful, this effort could set a precedent with potential nationwide impact. And it’s helping to kickstart a growing movement — with students at Boston College and the University of Wisconsin having recently filed similar efforts, pressure is growing around the country for institutions to act in accordance with their moral, financial, and legal duties.
Powerful institutions, FFDH continues to believe, have a massive ability to make a difference in the fight against the climate crisis. But for this potential to be realized, they must be willing to divest from planetary destruction and invest in a more just and stable future.