Stanford Dumps Its Holdings In Coal, With Climate In Mind

May 7, 2014
Originally published on June 10, 2014 9:59 am



From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. One of the nation's top universities is taking a stand against coal. Responding to dire warnings about the effects on climate change, Stanford made this announcement: the school's nearly $19 billion endowment fund will no longer make direct investments in companies that mine coal for energy. Environmentalists have been calling for colleges and others to divest in fossil fuel companies, and Stanford now becomes the biggest educational institution to get out of coal. Industry analysts are skeptical the move will have much impact - we'll hear about that in a moment. But first, to NPR's Richard Gonzales, who's at the Stanford campus. And, Richard, the board of trustees there announced their decision yesterday. What does that decision mean and what's the reaction on campus?

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: Well, the reaction here is it's a very popular move. It has been organized by a group of undergraduates who said they knocked on virtually every door on this campus trying to drum up support for this campaign, which has been going on for about two years. They had just got somewhere between 70 to 80 percent of undergraduate support for the idea of getting behind, urging the university to divest in coal. They took their case to the university and the board of trustees yesterday basically approved it. And Susan Weinstein, who is the chair of an advisory panel, Stanford's Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, told me why today. Here's what she said.

SUSAN WEINSTEIN: We did an extensive amount of research and came to the conclusion that fossil fuels are impacting climate change, which negatively impacts social and economic systems. We concluded that coal contributes a disproportionate amount to greenhouse gas emission for the amount of energy it produces. And we concluded that there are viable alternatives to coal.

GONZALES: And so she added that Stanford enjoys being on the cutting edge of what they think will be a growing movement.

BLOCK: It is a growing movement. It has been gathering speed, gaining traction at a number of campuses around the country. Talk a bit about the students behind that movement there at Stanford.

GONZALES: Well, there is a model and the support for all this comes from a group called, which is led by a man named Bill McKibben. And he's been advocating and advancing the idea of a new divestiture movement based on the campaigns of the 1980s. That's when campus activists were urging university administrators all across the country to divest in companies that did business in South Africa. So, they're trying to take that same model and apply it to coal companies and fossil fuel companies. I spoke with a young man named Michael Penuelas, who belongs to a group called Fossil Free Stanford. And he explained how they started this campaign November 2012, they took it to Stanford, the advisory panel, and then they waited. And as they waited, they became very nervous. And then he explains right here in this tape cut what happened next. Here's what he said:

MICHAEL PENUELAS: And so we prepped for hours preparing for the worst, because, you know, what we had seen that week were students arrested on other campuses. We had seen enormously negative responses from administrations. And then we walked in and there were all these proud smiles confronting us from these administrators. And what they said was, you know, Stanford's going to be a leader. Stanford is about to prove itself a leader in the climate movement.

GONZALES: And so it was pretty heavy times for Mr. Penuelas and his friends. And they're looking forward to advancing this movement.

BLOCK: Well, it's interesting, Richard, because other universities, including Harvard, which as the world's biggest educational endowment - over $30 billion - have said, no, we will not divest from fossil fuel companies. The president, Drew Faust, has said the endowment is not an instrument to impel social or political change. So, is there the feeling that this will spread to other universities or that it stops at Stanford?

GONZALES: I thinks there's a feeling that this is the momentum they wanted. One of the students that I talked to said they anticipate being able to talk with other campus activists around the country, explained how (unintelligible) here at Stanford and why.

BLOCK: OK. NPR's Richard Gonzales at Stanford University in California. Richard, thanks.

GONZALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.