Opinion guest column

Imprudent, immoral, illegal

MIT’s failure to divest from the fossil fuel industry is not just unethical — it is also against the law

On February 16, MIT Divest filed a legal complaint with the Office of the Massachusetts Attorney General to investigate the MIT Corporation’s continued financial investment in the fossil fuel sector. Frustrated with universities’ insufficient action in the face of the climate crisis, our student divestment campaign and similar groups from Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and Vanderbilt each prepared a legal complaint with the assistance of attorneys from the Climate Defense Project. Signatures from prominent professors, community members, climate scientists, elected officials, student organizations, alumni, and national environmental organizations supporting the cause show that there is widespread agreement that investments in fossil fuels are not just immoral and financially irresponsible — they are also illegal.

The complaint is a request to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to investigate the MIT Corporation’s conduct regarding its management of MIT’s $27.4 billion endowment and use the Attorney General’s enforcement powers to order the Corporation to cease its investments in fossil fuels. Under the Massachusetts Uniform Prudential Management of Institutional Funds Act, the MIT Corporation has a fiduciary duty to invest with consideration for the university’s “charitable purposes” — a duty that distinguishes nonprofit institutions from other investors. By investing a portion of MIT’s endowment in the fossil fuel industry, the Corporation is violating that duty and failing to “act in good faith and with loyalty.” Putting our university’s endowment into an industry actively contributing to the rapidly evolving climate catastrophe, while continuing to lie and spread misinformation about the role of fossil fuels in creating this crisis, is not investing with prudence as the law requires.

MIT Divest’s complaint is another reminder that MIT does not function within a vacuum. The MIT administration has shied away from taking clear stances against fossil fuel companies due to the “risk” of “becoming perceived as just another partisan voice.” But this so-called “risk” is no risk — it is the unfortunate reality for anyone who acknowledges the scientific consensus and stands for the truth about climate change. Fossil fuel companies are intensely political and partisan in their promotion of their own agendas and obstruction of climate action — just ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, and the American Petroleum Institute alone spent over $400 million from 2011 to 2021 lobbying the U.S. government. Furthermore, the industry has conducted climate misinformation campaigns for nearly half a century, despite possessing evidence linking fossil fuel burning to climate change decades before the general public. By remaining invested in fossil fuel stocks on the false grounds of political neutrality, MIT not only willfully blinds itself to the political ramifications of its investments but also funds the efforts of the fossil fuel industry to twist truth and science into political theater.

Refusal to divest is also a deliberate, direct stance upholding the status quo — and the climate status quo is grossly unjust. Climate change exacerbates inequity at every scale. Affordable housing units within low-lying regions here in Massachusetts are especially vulnerable to flooding from rising sea levels and intensified weather events. Within the U.S., if fossil fuel usage continues to rise, the counties in the bottom five percent of income are projected to suffer climate-associated economic damages of 5.5% to 27.6% of total county income while those in the top five percent are expected to face much smaller income losses of up to 4.2% or even small gains of up to 1.1%. Globally, climate change has already created an additional 25% GDP disparity between the wealthiest and poorest countries and is predicted to continue worsening global economic inequity.

Precedent for taking clear, unequivocal stances against injustice — even when those stances can be construed as political — can be found in MIT’s own history. In 2007, MIT declared that it “will not invest in a company whose actions or expressed attitudes are abhorrent to MIT” in response to calls from student activists to divest its endowment from funds linked to acts of genocide against the Darfuri people in western Sudan. More recently, the MIT administration has consistently demonstrated its support for Professor Gang Chen, an MIT faculty member targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice under the China Initiative, a project widely criticized by civil rights activists as discriminatory against individuals of Chinese heritage. We at MIT Divest applaud the MIT administration for standing against immoral and unjust actions in both of these instances.

We demand that MIT once again recognizes the political ramifications of all of the institution’s actions. We demand that MIT consciously chooses to uphold the principles of truth and justice. And we demand that MIT takes action now.

As the effects of climate change continue to debilitate our planet and its people, the need to act becomes more dire by the second. We may not be able to reverse the damage that has been done, but we can prevent further catastrophe for ourselves and our descendants. It will take drastic changes, however, and include technological advances to be developed here at MIT. Yet, even as our institution strives to foster this innovation, our leadership continues to contribute to the problem by maintaining their investments in fossil fuels. Until the industry loses the support of respected institutions, they will continue decimating our climate for profit.

We know that MIT has the power to put its money where its mouth is and remove our investments from fossil fuels. In doing so, we will join a growing coalition of organizations who are not afraid to challenge the status quo and save our planet. Furthermore, due to MIT’s status as a leading academic institution, divesting at MIT will catalyze further climate action around the world.

This series of legal complaints illustrates the growing legal opposition to fossil fuel investment. The majority of students and faculty on our campus, as well as many prominent figures in our area, support divestment. If it takes legal action for MIT to listen to its community, uphold the truth, and stand against global injustice, what does that say about what this institution really stands for? In order for MIT to truly live up to its mission statement and continue to be a leader in changing the world for the better, there is only one option: divestment now.

Aaliya Hussain 25 is a first-year student.

Nathan Shwatal ’24 is a second-year student in EECS and BCS.

Mitali Chowdhury ’24 is a second-year student in BE and DUSP.