Stanford joins divestment campaign; Obama should be next


Stanford U photo“Stanford University announced Tuesday that it would divest its $18.7 billion endowment of stock in coal-mining companies, becoming the first major university to lend support to a nationwide campaign to purge endowments and pension funds of fossil fuel investments,” the New York Times reported today. This is a significant victory for a campaign we support. “Divest!” President Obama exhorted his audience in his climate action plan address last year. But with his “all of the above” energy policy that includes stepped up production of fossil fuels — the contradiction at the heart of the administration’s climate policy — the rhetoric has not lived up to the reality.

New York Times (Stanford to Purge $18 Billion Endowment of Coal Stock):

… The university said it acted in accordance with internal guidelines that allow its trustees to consider whether “corporate policies or practices create substantial social injury” when choosing investments. Coal’s status as a major source of carbon pollution linked to climate change persuaded the trustees to remove companies “whose principal business is coal” from their investment portfolio, the university said. …

[I]t is a major victory for a rapidly growing student-led divestment movement that is now active at roughly 300 universities.

At least 11 small universities have elected to remove fossil-fuel stocks from their endowments, but none approaches Stanford’s prestige or national influence. Tuesday’s decision seems likely to increase the pressure on other major universities to follow suit. …

In his address at Georgetown University on June 25, 2013, President Obama gave a nod to the nationwide Go Fossil Free divestment campaign aimed at getting “educational and religious institutions, city and state governments, and other institutions that serve the public good” to divest from fossil fuels.

His exhortation to “Invest. Divest.” was embedded in eloquent concluding remarks to his campus audience and seemed aimed especially at the younger generation:

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest.

But as for articulating the need to phase out — “divesting” from rather than investing in — the fossil fueled energy system, Obama has not lived up to his rhetoric. His “all of the above” energy strategy includes stepped up support for renewable energy and energy efficiency — essential components of the clean energy transformation. But thus far “all of the above” also includes support for big increases in fossil fuel production.

Dana Milbank nails it in his column in the Washington Post that arrived at my doorstep this morning (The contradiction of Obama’s climate policy):

On the eve of the Obama administration’s release Tuesday of a report warning about grave consequences of climate change, presidential counselor John Podesta went into the White House briefing room and crowed about fossil-fuel production in words that could have been penned by Dick Cheney.

“The United States is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world,” Podesta declared. “It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. …

Podesta went on to say that as part of the “big increase” in oil and gas production, “we’re back on track to produce more oil and gas in the Gulf” of Mexico. …

It was a jarring juxtaposition: a new warning Tuesday about threats to life, health and commerce posed by carbon emissions, preceded by a boast Monday about record levels of carbon-fuel production. This is the contradiction at the heart of President Obama’s climate-change policy.

Jamie Henn, Co-Founder and Communications Director at, the group that instigated the nationwide fossil fuel divestment campaign, says, in an incisive post at Huffington Post (Climate and Cigarettes: Will the National Climate Assessment Spark Real Action?):

This Tuesday, the White House released the most comprehensive (and frightening) report yet on the impacts that climate change is already having on the United States. …

Forty years ago, the government put out another similarly dire report. It was called the first Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health. The landmark study was the first federal report government report that linked smoking with lung cancer and heart disease — and it was a bombshell. …

Tuesday’s report should send a shockwave through the American public. And it should electrify the growing movement that’s challenging the Big Tobacco of our generation: the fossil fuel industry.

For years, the fossil fuel industry has used the tobacco industry playbook to mislead the public about climate change. They’ve intentionally promoted pseudo-science and spread misinformation. They’ve polluted our political process with hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. And they’ve fought tooth-and-nail against any effort to regulate carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas that’s fueling the climate crisis.

In order for us to see real progress on climate change, our politicians need be just as embarrassed to stand next to the CEO of ExxonMobil as they would be to stand with the head of Philip Morris.

The White House, with the participation of some of the authors of the report, did a good roll-out yesterday of the newly released 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment. That is a significant step in repairing the damaged bridge between climate science assessment and the policy world. Now, it’s going to take continuing pressure from outside to push the government on the contradictions in current climate and energy policy.

Earlier posts:

Fossil fuel divestment campaign: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

Harvard faculty letter: divest university from fossil U.S. National Climate Assessment: Resources and media

U.S. National Climate Assessment: Resources and media

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4 Responses to Stanford joins divestment campaign; Obama should be next

  1. MJH says:

    Means nothing! Stanford cant divest unless someone else wants to buy.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      Well, every stock — in this case a coal company stock or a mutual fund that includes coal companies — has a current buy-sell price on the stock market. If Stanford’s investment managers tell their stock broker to sell a stock at the current market price, it is all but guaranteed to sell right away. Whether they make or lose money on it will depend on what prices they bought and sold it for. They could do some maneuvering with sell orders to manage their gains or losses, but you can’t say it “means nothing”. When they decide to dump a stock, they will dump it. That is straightforward.

  2. Lee says:

    Stanford should realize the folly of announcing a major divestment before the fact. The old endowment is going to take a major hit.
    This theory implies that man can overpower nature and global weather systems. Highly unlikely as it hasn’t happened yet.
    Water vapor comprises the highest percentage of chemical compounds in the atmosphere. It absorbs heat via radiation, conduction, and convection. The thermal cycle of the sun is the primary input of energy into the atmosphere. Good luck controlling that.
    But regarding wealth redistribution, I think global disruption will serve that purpose nicely.

    • Rick - Climate Science Watch says:

      I expect that Stanford’s holdings in coal companies and mutual funds that include coal companies is a small enough part of the overall market for coal stock that when they announce a divestment relative to when they sell won’t make much difference. And with their $18 billion endowment they may not feel much financial pain in divesting, or come out ahead if they invest the money instead in something that has more of a future.

      As for anthropogenically driven global climate disruption, the basic science of that is pretty well established, as is the likelihood of really damaging consequences. Perhaps you need to get some more education from the scientific assessments on this. Check out the just-released 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment, for example.

      As for global disruption and wealth distribution — the disruptions during the first half of the 20th century, including World War I, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Great Depression, and World War II, did destroy a lot of accumulated wealth and reduce overall wealth inequality within the Western countries (see Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century), but how 21st century global climate disruption will play out in terms of affecting the distribution of wealth remains to be seen. The small minority who hold most of the capital wealth will seek to protect themselves against the consequences that the have-nots will face. The result will depend on political and societal decisions that are not pre-ordained but will depend on our actions in dealing with the intertwined crises of environmental sustainability and economic injustice.

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