Harvard students are suing their own school to force it to divest from fossil fuel companies.
The suit appears to be the first of its kind. It was borne mostly out of frustration, said Kelsey Skaggs, 25, one of seven student plaintiffs.
For three years, Divest Harvard, the group that has led the campus's climate change action movement, has asked the school to publicly debate their proposals, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. That was despite numerous protests, including ones that led to arrests. They were also mindful that there's not much time left before global climate change begins to accelerate.
“We realized we weren’t getting anywhere,” she said. “Given that the timeframe to act on climate change is so short, we thought it was appropriate to bring this measure to bear to force some action.”
The suit, filed in Suffolk County Superior Court in Massachusetts, makes two claims: First, that Harvard’s endowment, $79 million of which comprises public shares of fossil fuel companies (out of $1 billion in public holdings), is mismanaging public funds.
The students believe they have standing to bring such a claim, since the investments are ultimately designed to further their interests. They also say they are working to protect future generations — “Future Generations” is actually listed as a plaintiff in the suit — a concept Skaggs said has no known legal precedent among suits related to climate change.
Harvard President Drew Faust recently acknowledged that the school has a “special obligation and accountability to the future, to the long view needed to anticipate and alter the trajectory and impact of climate change.” The suit argues the fossil fuel investments violate this pledge.
The other claim is that Harvard is intentionally investing in abnormally dangerous activities. That claim is usually used in settings like construction and manufacturing, but the students believe that notion should be expanded to climate change.
"Harvard knows with substantial certainty that its investments are funding climate change," Skaggs said. "Therefore they're liable."
The students are seeking a court order demanding that the school immediately withdraw its holdings from fossil fuel companies; begin withdrawing from indirect holdings (like mutual funds); and to judge that Harvard has violated its charter.
While the student divestment movement in the U.S. has been loud, you can still count its outright successes on one hand — just three small colleges have begun fully phasing out their fossil fuel holdings. Stanford recently agreed to divest from coal, but is hanging onto its investments in oil and gas companies. American University in Washington DC is voting on a divestment proposal tomorrow.
Skaggs says the movement would be jolted if a university as big as Harvard stepped up.
“It may not have a financial impact, but that’s not really the point,” she said. " The goal is revoking the social license of these fossil fuel companies.”
She said the group doesn't expect a ruling for several months. Harvard told the New York Times they're not sure whether the claims are applicable.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.