Columns, Opinion

Welcome to the Greenhouse: The Fossil Free 5 — student climate activists follow Divest Harvard in pursuing radical legal action for climate

In a manner similar to Divest Harvard’s action last spring, five student-run climate activist groups at five different top-tier universities are filing legal action against their administrations to push them to stop investing their endowments in fossil fuels. They call themselves the Fossil Free 5, and represent movements in Yale, Princeton, MIT, Stanford and Vanderbilt.

On Feb. 16, each divestment group within the Fossil Free 5 filed legal complaints with their state attorneys under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, arguing that these universities are not investing in a manner aligned with what is best for the public. 

The activist students argue that not only do these fossil fuel investments harm our collective environment — thus harming us as a public — but they also are not fiscally responsible investments because fossil fuel industries are finite and may decline.

Smaran Ramidi / DFP Staff

Over the weekend, I spoke with members of Divest Princeton and Divest Vanderbilt regarding their climate movement. 

Hannah Reynolds, a senior at Princeton and co-coordinator for Divest Princeton, told me that Divest Princeton has hope that legal action will be effective.

“We are very hopeful that the complaint will lead the Trustees to reframe divestment in their minds and help them see it as the prudent financial and legal option for the endowment and Princeton,” she said. 

While Boston University’s divestment plan stretches out over the next decade, Reynolds said that she hopes Princeton will be faster. 

“We hope that divestment involving holdings that can be easily sold would happen before the end of 2022. We understand that other investments could take up to five years to be divested,” she said. “Importantly, from the date of the announcement, no new investments would be made in any fossil fuel stocks and there would be an emphasis on investments in clean energy.”

The five student groups worked both separately and together to get this legal project off the ground.

Aaditi Lele, a freshman at Vanderbilt and the lead organizer with the school’s Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, said that “initially, the five schools worked on the school-specific aspects of our complaints independently. As we neared the filing date, we began collaborating to coordinate our media outreach, share research and legal language, and support one another’s direct action efforts.”

It is astounding that these five major universities have yet to divest.  Harvard, the entire University of California system, the University of Massachusetts system and many other rich and well-known universities — including Cornell and Brown University — have all divested or pledged to divest from fossil fuels. 

But what exactly is a university’s endowment? An endowment is the investable assets of a university, compiled from donations and increased by the investment of said donations.

And why is it greedy and ignorant for universities to continuously choose not to divest these endowments away from fossil fuels? Alarming news like the sixth report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and its New York Times coverage is circulating. 

These five universities should feel ashamed to stand at the top of the nation’s universities in wealth and reputation while refusing to sacrifice a small fraction of their endowments in order to stop actively harming the environment — and in turn, their students. 

Sacrifice certainly isn’t the right word, either. Divesting from fossil fuels will likely be of long-term economic benefit because fossil fuel industries will eventually decline due to drying supply. At the same time, according to the New England Board of Education, cleaner energy will become more common and profitable. So this is not a sacrifice at all, but a good move economically and morally.

It is significant to note here that any action that prioritizes economic benefit over the environment is inherently illogical. Climate change will wreck the economy much more than divestment from fossil fuels ever could. Additionally, the cost of economic regulations such as divestment is often overestimated in an attempt to alarm voters.

So really, we must ask Princeton, MIT, Yale, Vanderbilt and Stanford — what are you waiting for?

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