Harvard Beats Back Divestment Lawsuit, but Students Promise to Appeal

Seven filed suit to force prestigious college to divorce its fortune and its future from fossil fuels.

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Last week, a Massachusetts court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Harvard students seeking to force the university to divest its $36.4 endowment from holdings in fossil fuel companies. Credit: 350.org, flickr

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Harvard’s fossil fuel divestment movement recently hit a snag.

Last week, a Massachusetts court dismissed a novel lawsuit brought by seven Harvard students seeking to make the university in Cambridge, Mass., divest its $36.4 billion endowment of holdings in major coal, oil and natural gas companies.

The students made two claims in the lawsuit. The first claim, filed on behalf of themselves, argued that divestment is justified under their interpretation of the school’s charter. The second claim, filed on behalf of future generations—people whose “future health, safety and welfare depends on current efforts to slow the pace” of man-made climate change—argued that the school was intentionally investing in a known dangerous activity and should be stopped.

Justice Paul Wilson disagreed. In his opinion, he wrote that the students “have brought their advocacy, fervent and articulate and admirable as it is, to a forum that cannot grant the relief they seek.”

The students filed the lawsuit in November 2014. Their goal is to force the school to sell off all of its stocks and bonds tied to fossil fuel companies.

In December, both Harvard and the state’s attorney general moved to dismiss the case. Hearings were held at the Suffolk Superior Court in Boston in late February.

Alice Cherry, a plaintiff in the case and a second-year law student at Harvard, told InsideClimate News that she and the other students plan to appeal. This is the first time students have attempted to use a lawsuit to force fossil fuel divestment. Cherry said she believes “lawsuits could be an important part of escalating the divestment movement going forward.”

Harvard spokesman Jeff Neal wrote in an email, “As the Court notes in its decision, Harvard has been, and continues to be, focused on supporting the research and teaching that will ultimately create the solutions to this challenge” and will continue to tackle the issue through these means.

Harvard students launched their divestment campaign back in 2012. In an October 2013 letter rejecting divestment, Harvard president Drew Faust wrote: “the endowment is a resource, not an instrument to implement social or political change.”

Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the green group 350.org, which helped launch the fossil fuel divestment movement, told InsideClimate News that this argument doesn’t make sense. Historically, the university divested from tobacco companies and companies tied to apartheid in South Africa, he said.

Apart from the lawsuit, Harvard students have ramped up their actions in support of fossil fuel divestment in recent months. On Feb. 12, a group of students staged a sit-in in an administrative office. Since then, dozens of alumni, including actress Natalie Portman and author Cornel West, have signed a letter in support of divestment and a week of activities—dubbed “heat week”—supporting the movement in April.

Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., was the first school to pledge to divest from fossil fuels, in December 2011. Since then, 28 schools worldwide have committed to divest and at least nine have already met their goals. Moreover, the trend has extended beyond academia—at least 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals have also joined the cause.

According to 350.org, the primary argument for divestment is: “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

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