Progressive Massachusetts lawmakers aligned with climate activists are trying something new to combat climate change: using their legislative power to force one of the country’s most famous institutions to divest its sizable investments in the fossil fuel industry.
The target of this effort is Harvard University and its nearly $42 billion endowment, $838 million of which is invested in companies that produce fossil fuels, including coal, oil, or gas. The vehicle is a bill that would invoke an article in the Massachusetts Constitution that gives the Legislature governmental power over the university, a power that has been used sparingly.
The legislation faces an uncertain future on Beacon Hill but reflects a new push by activists to advance so-called divestiture campaigns through legal avenues after years of more traditional forms of protest.
The bill was authored by Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat from Cambridge, and Representative Erika Uyterhoeven, a Somerville Democrat, who drafted it alongside members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a student-led organization that has been advocating for the university’s divestiture from fossil fuels since 2012.
“Harvard is so well-positioned to be a leader here by leveraging the vast wealth and resources of its endowment, setting the example that they’re going to turn away from fossil fuel investments,” said Connolly.
According to Harvard’s 2021 climate report, the university’s fossil fuel investments total 2 percent of its $41.9 billion worth of investments. The percentage of the university’s endowment invested in the fossil fuel industry has steadily declined over the decade and is down from 11 percent of total investments reported in 2008. Yet, Klara Kuemmerle, a student organizer for Divest Harvard, and other members of the Harvard community say the university has not gone far enough.
“Eight-hundred thirty-eight million dollars in the fossil fuel industry is still far too much for a university,” said Kuemmerle. “It isn’t the money so much as it is the message conveyed that Harvard has completely and fully divested from fossil fuels, which it currently cannot say, even if it is a minimal 2 percent.”
A spokesman from Harvard declined to comment.
The legislation seeks to leverage an article in the Massachusetts Constitution that allows the Legislature to “alter” the governance of Harvard. Since the 1800s, the Legislature has employed the article 11 times — most recently in 1967.
Lawrence Friedman, a professor at New England Law, said the bill is constitutionally legal, yet invoking the article could be described as “drastic.”
“This seems unusual, and I suspect that, notwithstanding the constitutional status that Harvard enjoys, most of the issues that have arisen over time between Harvard and the Commonwealth are usually resolved through the political process,” Friedman said.
Divest Harvard has been calling on the university to shed its fossil fuel investments through protests and demonstrations, such as storming the field and causing nearly an hour delay to the 2019 Harvard-Yale football game. But recently, the group has pivoted to legal action.
“It may seem like drastic action, but if you look at the nine years of work that we put into [the divestment campaign] and trying to avoid [legal action], it is really the only option that we have left,” said Kuemmerle. “We need to make sure that the state knows that it’s just irresponsible and disappointing.”
Connolly said initial support for the bill has been strong, and he expressed confidence that the bill will receive a hearing in the coming months.
In March, Divest Harvard filed a complaint with Attorney General Maura Healey alleging that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments were “immoral.” The group called on Healey to open an investigation and use enforcement powers “to order the Harvard Corporation to cease its investments in fossil fuels.” The complaint was signed by more than 120 local groups and individuals, including state representatives, scientists, and Harvard faculty and alumni.
Divest Harvard is not the first higher-education group to take divestment into the legal arena. In December, after a multiyear divestment campaign, Boston College alumni, politicians, and scientists filed a complaint with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office arguing that the college’s board of trustees had “failed to consider the charitable purpose of the institution.”
Although Divest Harvard’s complaint and the bill are different avenues, they are both aimed at the same goal: complete divestiture.
If Harvard were to pull its funds from the fossil fuel industry, it would not be the first among its peers to do so. Colleges and universities have been steadily phasing out fossil fuel investments over the past five years, with institutions such as Brown University, Georgetown University, and Middlebury College committing to divestiture.
At Cornell University, students filed a complaint with the New York attorney general’s office in 2019, and the school’s board of trustees voted to divest from fossil fuels in May.
State and local governments also have recently committed to cutting fossil fuel investments through legislative action. This month, the Maine Legislature passed a divestiture bill requiring the state to reallocate its state treasury and state pensions from fossil fuels. Maine was the first state to commit to divestment through a legislative bill. In Massachusetts, however, withdrawing investments from fossil fuels, even for local municipalities, is fraught due to limitations that govern local investments.
Patrick Parenteau, professor of law and senior counsel in the Environmental Advocacy Clinic at Vermont Law School, said there has been an increase in legal action pushing companies and institutions to divest, especially abroad. He added that in addition to the moral component in the push toward eliminating fossil fuel investments, the market is shifting.
“It’s all part, I think, of a larger legal strategy and actually changes that are occurring within the market itself, which are moving away from fossil fuel, and certainly moving away from further investments in fossil fuel discovery and development,” Parenteau said.
The divestiture bill is not the only one to appear on Beacon Hill this session.
Representatives Dylan Fernandes, a Falmouth Democrat, and Jay Livingstone, a Boston Democrat, have proposed legislation that would allow local officials to reallocate their investments away from fossil fuels.
Although many see Harvard’s divestiture as symbolic, climate activists such as Kerrina Williams, a digital disruption organizer at the Better Future Project, said the bill and the potential for Harvard to eliminate fossil fuel investments could set off a ripple effect.
“It is just such a big symbolic move that shows that this power can be shifted back,” said Williams. “With a lot of our [divestment] campaigns, we are also looking at reinvestment. If we invested back into our community, that is a big opportunity to build up local communities.”
Due to a reporting error, a prior version of this story misspelled Attorney General Maura Healey’s last name. The Globe regrets the error.
Kate Lusignan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.