Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 2, 2021

Students demand University to divest from fossil fuels

By ZACHARY BAHAR | October 28, 2021

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Students at many peer institutions are also pushing for divestment. 

Student climate activist group Refuel Our Future filed a complaint against Hopkins with Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh on Oct. 26, citing University violations of its responsibilities as a charitable nonprofit by continuing to hold investments in fossil fuels.

The complaint, which has been signed by 70 students, alumni, community members and faculty, places emphasis on the disproportionate impacts of fossil fuels on underprivileged communities.

“The Board of Trustees has a fiduciary duty to invest with consideration for the University’s ‘charitable purposes’ — a duty that distinguishes non-profit institutions from other investors. Instead, the Board of Trustees has invested a portion of the University’s $4.3 billion endowment in the fossil fuel industry — damaging the world’s natural systems, disproportionately harming youth, low-income people, and communities of color, and imperiling the University’s financial and physical condition,” the complaint reads.

Refuel Our Future began work on the complaint over a year ago. Following in the footsteps of climate activists at peer institutions, including Boston College, Cornell University and Harvard University, the group drafted the complaint with the Climate Defense Project (CDP), a legal nonprofit that provides support to climate protesters. Harvard recently announced it would be divesting from fossil fuels on Sept. 9 as a result of student-led efforts like Divest Harvard.

In an interview with The News-Letter, CDP Co-Founder and Staff Attorney Alex Marquardt discussed the legal standards that Refuel Our Future cites.

“The law cited is on the books in almost every state, so the legal argument tends to be very consistent across these complaints,” Marquardt said. “Working with [Refuel Our Future] has been a matter of jointly putting together this document. We tend to handle the legal aspects, and we ask the campaign to fill in things that are more specific to their school and climate impacts in their state.”

This action was taken simultaneously with a student group at the University of New Mexico (UNM), who filed with New Mexico Attorney General Hector Balderas. 

Refuel Our Future President Elly Ren discussed the symbolism of the complaint’s filing date.

“We decided to file today because of the [DivestInvest 2021] event celebrating different divestments, and because university student climate activists at UNM also filed a complaint today. We did it together to amplify that,” Ren said.

Refuel Our Future estimates that $417 million (9.7%) of the University’s $4.3 billion endowment are currently held in the fossil fuel industry. While the principal argument for divestment remains the protection of the environment, declines in the fossil fuel industry — primarily a result of the shift towards renewables and COVID-19 — have also driven futures down.

Refuel Our Future member Shawn Tripathy discussed the potential impacts of the University divesting.

“Hopkins divesting isn't necessarily going to make the biggest impact financially on the fossil fuel industry, but if we set this precedent as more and more universities divest, it does start to contribute to a significant financial impact,” Tripathy said. “Divestment is huge, especially from a large organization like Hopkins.”

Marquardt echoed this sentiment, explaining that universities need to stop viewing fossil fuels as a sustainable source of energy.

“Divestment is an effective strategy because it’s a statement of what we expect to happen in the future and how we expect certain sectors of the economy to perform,” he said. “When people act on those expectations, it does really affect market performance.”

While this is one of the largest undertakings by Refuel Our Future, the group has a history of taking action to encourage divestment. In 2015, the organization pressured the Board of Trustees to convene and listen to the recommendations of the Public Interest Investment Advisory Committee (PIIAC). PIIAC submitted a proposal urging divestment in September 2017, but in December 2017 the Board ruled to only divest from the coal industry.

“Ever since [2017], we’ve been pushing for full divestment,” Ren said. “If Hopkins were to divest, it would be an amazing testament to all the work that we put in and all of the pressure that students have been putting on.”

In an email to The News-Letter, Director of Media Relations Jill Rosen reaffirmed the University’s commitment to fighting climate change while continuing to hold investments in fossil fuels.

“We are reviewing the filing but have confidence in the oversight and management of our endowment assets,” she wrote. “Johns Hopkins is deeply dedicated to climate sustainability and is engaged in a multi-pronged effort to reduce our carbon impact, including a commitment to cut the university’s carbon emissions in half by 2025, which we are on track to achieve.”

Freshman London Craddock believes that the University has a responsibility to invest in sustainable energy.

“If Hopkins can take some of the money they're investing in fossil fuels and invest them in renewable energy, maybe that would hurt them a little bit, but they have such a big endowment that my initial impulse is that they'll be fine,” Craddock said.

Sophomore Gwyneth Alexander agreed, noting that the environmental impact of divestment at Hopkins might be significant.

“Hopkins uses so much energy through all of its labs and hospitals, so they are a big energy consumer in Maryland,” she said. “Switching to greener energy options would be good for the environment and good for the future of green energy.”

Craddock added that Hopkins has the influence to act as a role model in this issue for other institutions.

“Promoting a call for Hopkins as an institution to be more transparent with the public and its students about its impact on the environment, even if that means being vulnerable and risking backlash, is incredibly important and can be really powerful,” Craddock said.

While the filing does mark a major milestone, it is far from the end of Refuel Our Future’s efforts for climate reform at Hopkins, according to Refuel Our Future Treasurer Mansha Kapur.

“We will continue to increase awareness regarding the project, continue to spread the word among students and make [students] aware of divestment as something we're pushing for - just keep the momentum going,” Kapur said. “We're not complacent having completed the project, we [will] keep pushing for divestment until we actually hear that it's happened.”

Ishan Kalburge contributed reporting to this article.

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