Students Take Harvard to Court Over Divesting From Fossils

Frustrated with Harvard University’s refusal to divest from fossil fuels, students are going to court. 

In 2012, a university referendum showed 72% of students and faculty favor divestment. Since then, 180 faculty and 800 alumni signed petitions and 93 faculty members sent President Faust a letter urging divestment but that hasn’t moved her to even hold a serious discussion on it.

In filing the lawsuit this week, the students say:

Divest Harvard Students

"As seven Harvard students organized under the name "Harvard Climate Justice Coalition," we allege that the Corporation’s funding of global warming harms its students and future generations, and that Harvard’s leaders have a duty to divest the university’s endowment from the reckless activities of the oil, gas, and coal industries.

We’re bringing this case by ourselves, without lawyers, because we believe that we have a responsibility to confront global warming. Climate change has arrived, wrecking the planet and posing serious dangers to the most vulnerable among us. Unless and until institutions like Harvard act to address the root causes of global warming, we will remain addicted to a system of energy production and economic injustice that guarantees catastrophe.

Our university has a legal obligation – and, more importantly, a moral duty – to stop profiting from human suffering and environmental destruction. Our lawsuit simply asks Harvard to live up to its centuries-old promise to promote "the advancement of youth."

They filed the complaint on behalf of the seven students and future generations.

In an OpEd in the Boston Globe they say, "As law students (the other four plaintiffs study physics, biology, history, and literature), we also recognize that courts – like our other institutions – have been slow to address global warming. In bringing this lawsuit, we hope to push our legal system toward a more responsible, and more realistic, reckoning with the disaster of climate change. The Harvard Corporation may twiddle its thumbs while the temperature rises. But the planet cannot wait."

They want the judge to compel Harvard to immediately withdraw from its holdings in coal, natural gas and oil companies.

While fiduciary responsibility usually means "making a profit for stakeholders," the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition is turning that long-held rationale for sticking with bad actors on its head.

Rather, by investing in companies that engage in "abnormally dangerous activities" Harvard is mismanaging – and risking – its funds, they say. 

And instead of engaging with Divest Harvard in an open, serious discussion, the administration has attacked their credibility and even arrested them, the complainants say.

"The bottom line is when you’re fighting for the future of a livable planet, you have to use all the tools available. We have an obligation to do everything that we can," law student Kelsey Skaggs told The Harvard Crimson 

It’s not like Harvard hasn’t used divestment as a tool for change before. The university divested from tobacco, South Africa to protest apartheid and from Darfur.

Unfortunately, Harvard isn’t alone in its addiction to fossil fuels. After three years of student activism across the US, only 12 colleges have agreed to divest, but at least Stanford is one of them. Worldwide, it’s another story with over 500 universities divesting, in addition to cities, states, foundations and religious institutions.

Norway’s largest manager of pension funds, KLP, is totally divesting from coal companies and instead investing about $75 million in renewable energy companies, reports NewsinEnglish.no.

Last week, Norway’s largest pension fund manager, KLP, announced it would divest from coal companies. The decision only means dropping 20-30 companies from a 3000-company portfolio – couldn’t Harvard do that?

"We’re quite convinced that we will deliver the same returns without coal companies," says KLP CEO Sverre Thornes.

Read our article, Fossil Fuel Divestment Gaining Traction: Harvard Pushes Back.

Learn more at the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition website:

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