A group of students from Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt filed a lawsuit in February to force universities to end their financial ties to the fossil fuel industry, which works with the nonprofit Climate Defense Project.
The students allege in their complaints that their schools are violating the Uniform Prudential Management of Institutional Fund Act, a state law that states that a nonprofit must comply with its “charitable purpose.”
Complaints filed by fossil fuel companies to their state attorney general on the same day argue that they are polluting the environment and engaging in public relations campaigns that undermine the missions of their universities.
“We are witnessing this unprecedented wave of litigation, where individuals are approaching the courts to hold some actors accountable for the damage they have suffered and the damage they may have suffered,” said Karen Sokol, a distinguished law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. .
Sokol attributed the rise in the number of climate cases to the growing public awareness of the problem – including the increasing harms of global warming – including severe weather disasters and the resulting devastation.
“People are seeking redress in the courts as the public awareness grows and the atrocities and damages increase at the same time,” Sokol told CNN. “That’s what we see.”
CNN has reached out to the relevant Attorney General’s offices, two of which – Massachusetts and Connecticut – have confirmed that they have received and are reviewing student complaints. The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office declined to comment, and the Tennessee and California offices did not respond.
The students told CNN that no university had responded directly to the complaints. In emails to CNN, delegates from Stanford, Princeton, Yale and MIT pointed out the recent efforts of their universities to mitigate climate change. Vanderbilt did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.
Each university has released detailed plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions on their campuses by the target date of 2050. Some seek net-zero emission in their investment portfolios, or some have ethical investment principles rendered to fossil fuel companies. Not eligible for investment.
Stanford aims to eliminate net zero in operations and investments by 2050, University Communications executive de Mostofy told CNN, adding that the university’s investments “fully comply with all applicable laws governing charities in California.” Mostofy 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 can still invest in fossil fuels and actually offset it in an inadequate way,” said Miriam Walstrom, Jr. at Stanford and organizer of Fossil Free Stanford. “As a member of a generation that both have to do the most to combat the climate crisis and suffer the most in the face of severe weather events, it is horrible and frustrating that I did not leave the institution I am going to, especially if so. There are many institutions of the same age. “
Students also stressed that their universities may have conflicts of interest that prevent them from responding reasonably to students’ climate needs.
Yale students note that all four trustees of Yale Corporation, a charitable corporate body that manages the school’s approximately $ 42 billion endowment, are linked to the fossil fuel industry. Current or former trustees serve as board members of oil and gas companies, or have recently served, and was the CEO of a major energy company.
Neither Yale Corporation nor Yale’s advisory board on investor liability have responded to CNN’s requests for comment.
“Investing in fossil fuels is an important part of our campaign,” said Molly Weiner, Yale’s newcomer and organizer of Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition. “But the moral argument is going to get us so far only because the people who make these investment decisions will benefit personally.”
Weiner also pointed out the discrepancy between where Yale spends research funds and how a portion of its endowment is spent.
“Yale spends a lot of money on climate research,” said Weiner, head of environmental studies. “But it’s important that the university has $ 800 million in the fossil fuel industry. It’s basically canceling each other out.”
Ted Hamilton, co-founder of the Climate Defense Project, hopes that Yale and other universities will decide to withdraw at will. Instead, he said, the state attorney general could issue enforcement orders forcing universities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. Such a move would be unprecedented.
Some cases were successful.
Speaking on successful international cases, Sokol said, “There is this speed. “The courts are defining their role in our new climate reality.”