Frustrated and anxious, climate advocates are turning to legal action. The latest petitioners: College students

MECA students Amanda Bizarro, center, and Sydney Berkeley, left, participate in a climate justice rally on November 5 in conjunction with Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future.

(CNN)College campuses have for years been at the center of climate change activism. But now, frustrated and anxious by what they see as slow action alongside growing climate damages, students are engaging a new tactic: legal action.

A coalition of students from Yale, MIT, Princeton, Stanford and Vanderbilt working with the nonprofit Climate Defense Project filed legal complaints in February to compel their universities to end their financial relationships with the fossil fuel industry.
In the complaints, students alleged their schools are violating the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Acts, a state law which states a nonprofit's investments must align with its "charitable purpose."
The complaints, all filed with their state attorneys general on the same day, contend fossil fuel companies, by polluting the environment and engaging in public relations campaigns to undermine climate science, stand in conflict to the missions of their universities.
Students also argued fossil fuel investments are inherently risky, violating their institutions' legal duty to invest prudently. Climate scientists reported Monday new fossil fuel projects risk becoming "stranded assets," or being abandoned. The estimated losses from stranded fossil fuel infrastructure between 2015 and 2050 is anywhere from $1 trillion and $4 trillion, assuming the world takes action to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.
The students' filings are part of a global surge in legal action to address the climate crisis. A recent report from Grantham Research Institute of the London School of Economics showed worldwide, the number of climate-change related legal cases more than doubled between 2015 and 2021. Around 800 such cases were filed between 1986 and 2014, while more than 1,000 were brought over the following six years, the report found.
"We're witnessing this unprecedented wave of litigation, where individuals are going to court to hold certain actors to account for the damages they are suffering and the damages they will suffer," said Karen Sokol, distinguished professor of law at Loyola University New Orleans.
Sokol attributed the rise in climate cases to the increasing harms of global warming -- including severe weather disasters and the resulting destruction -- along with the public's growing awareness of the problem.
"Whenever harms and damages mount simultaneously with an increase in public awareness, people tend to seek redress in the courts," Sokol told CNN. "That's what we're seeing."
The endowments of the five universities total more than $150 billion, according to the legal filings. CNN was unable to independently confirm the amount, or how much each university is investing in fossil fuels.
Harvard and Yale students protest during the halftime of the college football game between Harvard and Yale at the Yale Bowl in New Haven, Connecticut in 2019. Demonstrators stormed the field to demand that both universities divest from fossil fuels.
CNN reached out to the respective attorneys general offices, two of which -- Massachusetts' and Connecticut's -- confirmed they received and are reviewing the student complaints. New Jersey's Attorney General's office declined to comment, and the offices of Tennessee and California did not respond.
None of the universities have directly responded to the complaints, the students told CNN. In emails to CNN, representatives from Stanford, Princeton, Yale and MIT pointed to their universities' recent efforts to mitigate climate change. Vanderbilt did not respond to CNN's request for comment.
Each of the universities has also released detailed plans to achieve net-zero carbon emissions on their campuses by a target date, by 2050. Some are also seeking net-zero emissions in their investment portfolios, or have ethical investment principles rendering certain fossil fuel companies ineligible for investment.
Stanford is seeking to reach net-zero emissions in both operations and investments by 2050, according to university communications executive Dee Mostofi, who also told CNN the university's investments "fully comply with all applicable laws regulating charities in California." Mostofi also highlighted the university's investments in clean energy and transportation.
For the Stanford students, the promises and policies are not enough.
"'Net-zero' means Stanford could still be invested in fossil fuels and just be offsetting it in ways that aren't really sufficient," said Miriam Wallstrom, a junior at Stanford and an organizer with Fossil Free Stanford. "As a member of the generation that both has to do the most to fight the climate crisis and will also suffer the most in terms of severe weather events, it's terrifying and frustrating that the institution I go to hasn't divested, especially when so many peer institutions have."