- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 18, 2014

A much-touted campaign to get the nation’s colleges and universities to sell their holdings in the fossil fuel industry as a way to fight climate change has mostly been drilling a dry hole since its launch three years ago.

Divestment activists have been getting rejection letters from some of the nation’s biggest and richest schools, including Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and the University of California. In May, the Stanford University board of trustees agreed to sell off some of its portfolio, but only from coal companies.

Most of the 12 colleges that have agreed to divest over time oversee relatively small endowments, such as Prescott College in Arizona with $4.6 million or Unity College in Maine with $13.5 million. The largest endowment among the divesting colleges belongs to the University of Dayton, a Catholic school in Ohio that agreed in June to start divesting from its $670 million pool.

SEE ALSO: Climate changers criticized for taking fossil-fuel money while calling for divestment

Harvard, by contrast, has an endowment valued at $36.4 billion. President Drew Faust made the university’s position clear in an open letter a year ago. She said selling Harvard’s assets in fossil fuels could harm its bottom line without doing much for the climate change cause.

Divestment “is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies,” she wrote. “And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry.”

Ms. Faust also pointed up one irony of the whole divestiture push: “I also find a troubling inconsistency in the notion that, as an investor, we should boycott a whole class of companies at the same time that, as individuals and as a community, we are extensively relying on those companies’ products and services for so much of what we do every day.”

But in what could be a coup for the movement, the board of trustees of Washington-based American University on Friday is expected to consider shedding fossil fuel assets from its $550 million endowment over five years, including coal, oil and natural gas, under intense pressure from students and faculty.

Such a commitment from AU, which has about 4 percent of its endowment in fossil fuels, would represent the second-largest financial stake among the 12 academic institutions committed to divestment.

“As the campaign barrels forward to November 21, all eyes are on American University,” AU student and Fossil Free American University organizer Rebecca Wolf said in an op-ed in last week. “We stand ready to celebrate divestment or escalate our campaign to the next level. This is our stake in the climate movement and we are ready to tip the scales.”

Her article appeared on the website of 350.org, a national climate change group that has championed the campus divestment movement as well as divestiture efforts aimed at churches, pension funds and local governments.


Still, the strategy has its critics, even among those who support the goals of the climate change movement. Ivo Welch, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, has argued that divestment as a vehicle for political reform has been “completely ineffective.”

Richard Muller, a physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a leading climate scientist, advocates the use of more fossil fuels — in the form of natural gas instead of coal — to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in China and India, the world’s biggest polluters.

“Suppressing fossil fuels in general, in my mind, is very likely to lead to more global warming,” said Mr. Muller, author of “Energy for Future Presidents,” who also calls for expanded conservation efforts.

“Just reducing fossil fuels in the United States doesn’t really help global warming,” Mr. Muller said. “You have to address a much bigger problem. This little mantra of ‘fossil fuel bad, renewable good’ is not going to be effective in reducing global warming.”

That’s unlikely to stop climate change activists at American University, who have spent two years building up to Friday’s board meeting. The undergraduate senate voted unanimously to support divestment in March 2013, and the faculty senate later passed a similar resolution, according to the student newspaper, the Eagle.

In April 2013, 79 percent of students voted to urge the board to freeze fossil fuel investments and “facilitate an open dialogue” on divesting from coal, oil and gas companies. Student protesters holding signs urging divestment have swarmed outside recent board of trustees meetings.

In May, the board’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing recommended adopting a limited fossil fuel investment strategy. The board is expected to discuss the report at its Friday meeting.

Fossil Free AU organizers held a rally Monday that drew a couple of hundred students and some faculty members. They also are planning to attend the finance and investment committee meeting Wednesday and hold a Friday afternoon march to the board meeting.

Not everyone on campus is behind the effort. Caleb Rossiter, adjunct professor at the School of International Service, said in a Sept. 12 op-ed that while he supported divestment calls in the 1980s against South Africa, he fears that fossil fuel divestiture would hurt Africans economically.

“A successful divestment campaign would be a death sentence for African economic development and millions of Africans,” Mr. Rossiter, who teaches African politics, said in the Eagle. “Like many other areas in the developing world, Africa has not achieved the carbon-based industrialization that has boosted education, comfort, income and life expectancy to record levels in the developed world.”

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