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Frustrated and anxious, climate advocates are turning to legal action. The latest petitioners: College students

<i>Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images</i><br/>MECA students Amanda Bizarro
Portland Press Herald via Getty
Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald/Getty Images
MECA students Amanda Bizarro

By Pooja Salhotra, CNN

College campuses have for years been at the center of climate change activism. But now, frustrated and anxious by what they see as slow action alongside growing climate damages, students are engaging a new tactic: legal action.

A coalition of students from Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt working with the nonprofit Climate Defense Project filed legal complaints in February to compel their universities to end their financial relationships with the fossil fuel industry.

In the complaints, students alleged their schools are violating the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Acts, a state law which states a nonprofit’s investments must align with its “charitable purpose.”

The complaints, all filed with their state attorneys general on the same day, contend fossil fuel companies, by polluting the environment and engaging in public relations campaigns to undermine climate science, stand in conflict to the missions of their universities.

Students also argued fossil fuel investments are inherently risky, violating their institutions’ legal duty to invest prudently. Climate scientists reported Monday new fossil fuel projects risk becoming “stranded assets,” or being abandoned. The estimated losses from stranded fossil fuel infrastructure between 2015 and 2050 is anywhere from $1 trillion and $4 trillion, assuming the world takes action to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

The students’ filings are part of a global surge in legal action to address the climate crisis. A recent report from Grantham Research Institute of the London School of Economics showed worldwide, the number of climate-change related legal cases more than doubled between 2015 and 2021. Around 800 such cases were filed between 1986 and 2014, while more than 1,000 were brought over the following six years, the report found.

“We’re witnessing this unprecedented wave of litigation, where individuals are going to court to hold certain actors to account for the damages they are suffering and the damages they will suffer,” said Karen Sokol, distinguished professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans.

Sokol attributed the rise in climate cases to the increasing harms of global warming — including severe weather disasters and the resulting destruction — along with the public’s growing awareness of the problem.

“Whenever harms and damages mount simultaneously with an increase in public awareness, people tend to seek redress in the courts,” Sokol told CNN. “That’s what we’re seeing.”

The endowments of the five universities total more than $150 billion, according to the legal filings. CNN was unable to independently confirm the amount, or how much each university is investing in fossil fuels.

CNN reached out to the respective attorneys general offices, two of which — Massachusetts’ and Connecticut’s — confirmed they received and are reviewing the student complaints. New Jersey’s Attorney General’s office declined to comment, and the offices of Tennessee and California did not respond.

None of the universities have directly responded to the complaints, the students told CNN. In emails to CNN, representatives from Stanford, Princeton, Yale and MIT pointed to their universities’ recent efforts to mitigate climate change. Vanderbilt did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Each of the universities has also released detailed plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions on their campuses by a target date, by 2050. Some are also seeking net-zero emissions in their investment portfolios, or have ethical investment principles rendering certain fossil fuel companies ineligible for investment.

Stanford is seeking to reach net-zero emissions in both operations and investments by 2050, according to university communications executive Dee Mostofi, who also told CNN the university’s investments “fully comply with all applicable laws regulating charities in California.” Mostofi also highlighted the university’s investments in clean energy and transportation.

For the Stanford students, the promises and policies are not enough.

“‘Net-zero’ means Stanford could still be invested in fossil fuels and just be offsetting it in ways that aren’t really sufficient,” said Miriam Wallstrom, a junior at Stanford and an organizer with Fossil Free Stanford. “As a member of the generation that both has to do the most to fight the climate crisis and will also suffer the most in terms of severe weather events, it’s terrifying and frustrating that the institution I go to hasn’t divested, especially when so many peer institutions have.”

Carbon offsetting is the practice of using renewable energy, planting trees, or supporting other forms of conservation in an attempt to offset fossil fuel emissions. But many experts have cast doubts on the efficacy of the schemes, which could allow people, countries, companies or organizations to continue to emit carbon dioxide unabated.

Other institutions of higher education that have moved away from fossil fuels, or have announced plans to do so, include Brown University, Boston University, Georgetown University and Middlebury College. Harvard University and Cornell University also committed to divesting soon after their students filed legal complaints with the help of attorneys at Climate Defense Project, the same organization assisting the current coalition of students.

Students also emphasized their universities may have conflicts of interest preventing them from fairly responding to student climate demands.

Vanderbilt students allege university Chancellor Daniel Diermeier’s ties to the fossil fuel industry are a conflict of interest. Diermeier has previously advised companies including Shell, ExxonMobil and BP, among others, according to his CV, which is hosted by a Vanderbilt web address. Students filed a complaint with the University, and the committee responsible for investigating conflicts of interest found it to be “without merit,” according to a university news release. The Chancellor did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

Yale students similarly note four trustees of Yale Corporation — the charitable corporate entity managing the school’s roughly $42 billion endowment — have ties to the fossil fuel industry. Three current or former trustees serve, or have recently served, as board members for oil and gas companies, while one was the CEO of a prominent energy company.

Neither the Yale Corporation nor Yale’s Advisory Committee on Investor Responsibility responded to CNN’s requests for comment.

“The core part of our campaign has been saying that investing in fossil fuels is immoral,” said Molly Weiner, a Yale freshman and an organizer with Yale’s Endowment Justice Coalition. “But the moral argument is only going to get us so far given that the people who make these investment decisions personally benefit.”

Weiner also pointed to a discrepancy between where Yale spends research funds and how it allocates part of its endowment.

“Yale is putting a lot of money into climate research,” said Weiner, an environmental studies major. “But that is rendered moot by the fact that the university has $800 million in the fossil fuel industry. They basically cancel each other out.”

Ted Hamilton, co-founder of Climate Defense Project, is hopeful Yale and the other universities will decide to divest on their own volition. Alternatively, he said, the state attorneys general could issue enforcement orders mandating universities to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry. Such action would be unprecedented.

Globally, climate litigation largely remains unsettled, as many cases continue to move through the court system. Nearly two dozen lawsuits in the US, all pending in the courts, seek monetary damages from fossil fuel companies, claiming the companies have lied to the public by misrepresenting or denying the harmful effects of fossil fuels, according to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University.

Some cases have been successful.

One lawsuit resulted in a German court issuing a ruling requiring the government to create more ambitious greenhouse gas emission reductions.

A case in the Netherlands created a new “duty of care” for the government to protect the public from climate change. And more recently, a Netherlands court reached a groundbreaking decision mandating Shell to reduce its global worldwide emissions by 45% by 2030 from 2019 levels.

“There’s this momentum,” said Sokol, speaking of the successful international cases. “Courts are carving out their role in our new climate reality.”

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