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The suit charges that the Harvard Corporation is breaching its duties under its charter by investing in fossil fuel companies.(Photo: Harvard Climate Justice Coalition/Facebook/Overlay)

Upping Ante on Fossil Fuel Divestment, Harvard Students File Suit Against University

'By financially supporting the most dangerous industrial activities in the history of the planet,' say students, prestigious university 'is violating commitments under its charter as well as its charitable duty to operate in the public interest.'

Jon Queally

Seven students at Harvard University, among the most prestigious and wealthiest educational institutions in the world, have filed a lawsuit against the corporate entity which governs the school charging that refusal to divest its financial holdings from the fossil fuel industry is a "mismanagement of charitable funds" and a violation of its obligations to the future of the university as well as the planet.

Filed in a Massachusetts court, the legal complaint (pdf) states that because the Harvard endowment is currently invested in the coal, gas, and oil companies to the tune of $79 million, the school is directly contributing to the industry most responsible for the destructive global warming and subsequent climate change fueled by carbon pollution and other greenhouse gases.

"[We are] suing on behalf of future generations. By investing in the extraction of fossil fuels, the Harvard Corporation is actively supporting the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere and the catastrophic consequences that will be visited upon our children and grandchildren. It is our duty to give voice to these coming generations and to hold the Corporation accountable for its reckless and shortsighted behavior." —Harvard Climate Justice CoalitionAccording to Kelsey Skaggs, one of the plaintiffs and a graduate law student from Alaska, "The Harvard Corporation refuses to acknowledge the moral implications of its investments." She said she hope the lawsuit will the school and its trustees face their "legal obligation to stop causing harm by supporting climate change and the fossil fuel companies that are working against solutions."

Another plaintiff, graduate student Benjamin Franta from Iowa, added, "Climate change is now causing harm through mortality, economic damage and political instability. The Harvard Corporation has a moral and legal duty to avoid investing in activities that cause such grave harms to its students and the public."

According to The Crimson, the university's newspaper, the suit was filed in the Suffolk County Superior Court and "names the Harvard Corporation, the Harvard Management Company, and Massachusetts Attorney General Martha M. Coakley as defendants in the case. HMC oversees Harvard’s more than $36 billion endowment."

In an op-ed published in the Boston Globe, the students, members of the Harvard Climate Justice Coalition, explained their motivations and the logic of the lawsuit:

Our legal claims are simple. Harvard is a nonprofit educational institution, chartered in 1650 to promote “the advancement and education of youth.” By financially supporting the most dangerous industrial activities in the history of the planet, the Harvard Corporation is violating commitments under its charter as well as its charitable duty to operate in the public interest.

We’re also suing on behalf of future generations. By investing in the extraction of fossil fuels, the Harvard Corporation is actively supporting the destruction of the earth’s atmosphere and the catastrophic consequences that will be visited upon our children and grandchildren. It is our duty to give voice to these coming generations and to hold the Corporation accountable for its reckless and shortsighted behavior.

Our suit charges that the Harvard Corporation is breaching its duties under its charter by investing in fossil fuel companies. Our second count is a novel tort claim, intentional investment in abnormally dangerous activities, that is based in well-established legal principles regarding liability for promoting especially hazardous behavior.

According to the New York Times, which received an exclusive on the story:

[The Harvard] students said that they drew inspiration from John Bonifaz, a graduate of Harvard Law School who, with other students, sued the university in the 1990s over racial diversity in the law school’s hiring practices. His suit was ultimately unsuccessful, but it was widely considered influential in nudging the school’s actions.

Mr. Bonifaz, a MacArthur grant recipient who now practices law in Massachusetts and is active in voting rights issues around the country, said the students had been in contact with him. They are making “a creative and powerful argument,” he said, “and I think it can shift the overall debate.”

The Harvard students, he added, are taking activism over divestment “to another level by grounding it in a legal argument.”


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