College students have filed legal complaints against university fossil fuel deposits

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.

The students argued that fossil fuel deposits were inherently risky, violating the legal obligation of their institutions to invest sensibly. Climate scientists reported Monday that new fossil fuel projects are likely to be “isolated assets” or abandoned. Losses from isolated fossil fuel infrastructure between 2015 and 2050 are estimated at $ 1 trillion and $ 4 trillion, and the world is expected to take action to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above industrial time.
Student filings are part of a global leap forward in legal action to address the climate crisis. A recent report by the Research Institute, a book by the London School of Economics, shows that the number of legal cases related to climate change has more than doubled between 2015 and 2021. Between 1986 and 2014, 800 such cases were filed, and more than 1,000 cases were filed. Over the next six years, the report found.

“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.”

According to legal filings, the endowments of the five universities amount to a total of more than $ 150 billion. CNN could not independently confirm the amount, or how much each university invests in fossil fuels.

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.

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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. “

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Carbon offsetting is the use of renewable energy in an effort to offset fossil fuel emissions, planting trees, or supporting other forms of conservation. But many experts have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of plans that allow people, countries, companies or organizations to continue to emit carbon dioxide continuously.
Brown University, Boston University, Georgetown University and Middlebury College are other institutions of higher learning that have switched to fossil fuels, or have announced plans to do so. Harvard University and Cornell University are committed to withdrawing their complaints immediately after their students have filed legal complaints with the assistance of attorneys for the Climate Defense Project, which assists the existing student body.

Students also stressed that their universities may have conflicts of interest that prevent them from responding reasonably to students’ climate needs.

Wonderbilt students allege that University Chancellor Daniel Diermier’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry is a conflict of interest. According to his CV, which hosts the Wonderbilt web address, Dirmier has previously advised companies including Shell, ExxonMobil and BP. The students filed a complaint with the university, and a committee responsible for investigating conflicts of interest found it “without merit,” a university news release said. The Chancellor did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

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.

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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.

Globally, climate litigation remains largely unresolved, with many cases continuing to move through the court system. According to the Sabine Center for Climate Change Law, there are more than two dozen unresolved lawsuits in the US seeking compensation from fossil fuel companies in the U.S., which claims companies have lied to the public by misrepresenting or denying the harmful effects of fossil fuels. At Columbia University.

Some cases were successful.

As a result of a lawsuit, a German court issued a ruling calling on the government to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.
A case in the Netherlands has created a new “maintenance responsibility” for the government to protect the public from climate change. Recently, a court in the Netherlands reached a landmark decision to reduce Shell’s global emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels.

Speaking on successful international cases, Sokol said, “There is this speed. “The courts are defining their role in our new climate reality.”

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