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Fossil fuels under fire: Divestment push picks up steam

Aaron Task
Editor in Chief

In the 1980s, pressure from student groups over apartheid forced many universities to divest from South Africa. Today, activists are targeting a far larger target: The fossil fuel industry.

This week, Syracuse University announced its $1.2 billion endowment plans to drop all fossil fuel stocks. A number of smaller institutions have made similar pledges, including Hampshire College, University of Maine and The New School. This week students at Bowdoin College in Maine staged a sit-in at the president's office in an effort to get the school to divest from fossil fuels.

The Syracuse decision shows the divestment movement is "entering a new, more escalated phase," says Jamie Henn, communications director at 350.org, a non-profit focused on climate-related campaigns and projects. "It's a billion-dollar endorsement of the idea and takes us into another league in terms of the types of universities that are beginning to come on board."

Henn expects "big actions" this spring on divestment in the University of California system, as well as "iconic East Coast schools" such as Swathmore and Amherst. Furthermore, he notes institutions such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, religious groups like the World Council of Churches and municipalities like San Francisco County have made similar divestment pledges. (A full list can be found here.)

Meanwhile, there's a bill pending in the California State Legislature calling for CalPERS and CalSTRS -- which have over $400 billion in combined assets -- to divest from fossil fuels. In 2013, the giant state pension funds divested from gun manufacturers after the school shootings in Newtown, CT but have given a cool response to the fossil fuel divestment push so far.

"We firmly believe that engagement is the first call of action, and results show that it is the most effective form of communicating concerns with the companies we own," CalPERS wrote on its Facebook page in December. "We look forward to continuing a meaningful dialogue with experts and stakeholders on how best to mitigate the portfolio risks associated with climate change to ensure the long term sustainability of the fund."

Back on the college endowment front, Stanford's $21.4 billion endowment said last year it will divest from coal stocks thanks largely to the efforts of Tom Steyer, a billionaire former hedge fund manager and president of NextGen Climate, who is on the school's board of trustees.

Steyer and NextGen Climate did not respond to requests for comment.

But Stanford is viewed as a special case and most other universities with major endowments, notably Harvard and Yale, have declined to join the divestment movement.

"While I share [students'] belief in the importance of addressing climate change, I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise," Harvard President Drew Faust declared in 2013.

At issue here is whether investments are made purely for profits or as a representation of the investors' values. For many college students, certainly those agitating for the divestments, the latter matters most. Many financial experts disagree.

"Investors seeking to comply with the goals of fossil fuel divestiture potentially
incur three key types of costs" -- trading costs, diversification costs and compliance costs -- according to a recent study by University of Chicago law professor and Compass Lexecon chairman Daniel Fischel.

Steven Davidoff, a law professor at U.C. Berkeley, puts it this way: "Endowments are there to make money for the school. Anytime you make decisions based not on returns but other [motives] you're going to risk not getting the money you need to make the school run."'
Opponents such as Davidoff further argue there's better ways for student groups to fight for the environment. "It might make everyone feel good but won't do a lot of good," he says of the divestment effort. "I doubt any coal company is going to go out of business. We have a legislative process and if you want to effect change that's what you do."

As Harvard's Faust writes:

"We need to focus on actions that will make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel or look good but have little real-world impact, particularly when such symbolic actions have opportunity costs—that is, they divert us from what really matters. And what really matters in addressing climate change will be enlightened public policies at the international, national and sub-national levels that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and the risk of climate change. This is where research institutions can and should wield their influence."

Indeed, one could argue an endowment would be better off maximizing its return on investment and then using those funds for research into alternative energies, or to support political candidates and legislation with a similar focus.

The Morality of Investing

But we seem to have entered an age where consumers -- and investors -- increasingly want to put their money where their mouths (and valued) are, Chipotle being a poster child for this mindset, at least among millennials.  And there is some academic research indicating that "'doing good' pays off" for both companies and shareholders, as University of Western Ontario professor Caroline Flammer found in this 2013 study.

350.org's Henn suggest opponents of divestment are "not taking into account the risks of fossil fuel stocks," such as those investors in coal stocks experienced in recent years, and investors in oil and gas companies have more recently discovered. He also cited the "carbon bubble" argument former Vice President Al Gore made here and a 2013 study by S&P Capital IQ found that by one measure, endowments would have been better off had they divested 10 years ago, AP reports.

In the end, the divestment movement really isn't about investing but a means to an end: "The fossil fuel industry is a huge barrier to legislation to tackle climate change," Henn says. Campaigns on college campuses will eventually "strip away the social license of the industry, which weakens political power. We're not at that point yet but this is a campaign that can create space for that and [reframe] the issue."

What do you think: Will fossil fuel will become the 'new tobacco'? Or is the pro-divesting crowd cutting off its (financial) nose to spite its face? Let us know in the comments section below and stay tuned for additional coverage of this issue.

Aaron Task is Editor-at-Large of Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter at @aarontask or email him at altask@yahoo.com.