The Fields Medal’s first female winner Maryam Mirzakhani, Nobel Laureates, and 300 other Stanford professors have called upon Stanford to divest the University’s $21.4bn (£14.2bn) endowment away from planet-damaging fossil fuel industries. The signatories demand a thorough commitment of divestment from all fossil fuel companies. Divesting from fossil fuels means getting rid of stocks, bonds or funds in coal, oil and gas companies. Their letter exclaims how “the urgency and magnitude of climate change calls not for partial solutions, however admirable”. Climate change mitigation requires bold actions, game-changing behaviour, and an upheaval of the norm, so de-fossiling our economies offers one clear way to mitigate climate change.
Divestment is often a socially motivated activity whereby asset managers are petitioned to sell their stock market-listed shares, private equities, or debts from firms that are deemed to be engaged in a reprehensible activity. Tobacco, munitions, corporations in apartheid South Africa, provision of prostitution services, and gambling have all been subjected to divestment campaigns in the 20th century. In a world of rising temperatures, fossil fuel companies are the 21st century enemy. The scientific consensus is that at least two-thirds of oil, gas, and coal reserves must remain underground if the world is to meet existing internationally agreed targets to avoid surpassing the threshold for dangerous climate change.
In order to meaningfully move towards low-carbon, green growth tracts many actors need to commit alongside each other: governments, environmental lawyers, business, research etc. Despite the University of Oxford's public commitments to tackle climate change through its world-leading climate research, the University of Oxford has the largest endowment of any UK university invested in numerous fossil fuel companies!
A number of Oxford colleges have divested from fossil fuels, but often these are student-led campaigns, and they are far from a university-wide commitment. The Go Fossil Free campaign is welcoming petitions here to ask our Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton to:
· screen for and exclude the fossil fuel industry from OU's investment portfolio
· immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies
· divest from the fossil fuel industry and shift funds to positive, ethical investments within 5 years
Glasgow University was Europe’s first to divest. Oxford has yet to do it. Harvard is not yet planning to divest its $32bn endowment form fossil fuels. But is it not paradoxical for elite universities to seek to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, while simultaneously investing in the destruction of that future?
Fossil fuels’ stock value needs to fall and reflect the catastrophe that extracting and burning them would do to the biosphere. The heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune understand that planetary catastrophe, so in September 2014 they withdrew their $860m philanthropic fund from investments in tar sands, coal, and oil.
However, rapid and huge scale divestments could result in ‘stranded assets’, where environmentally unsustainable assets suffer from unanticipated or premature write-offs, downward revaluations, or are converted to liabilities. The University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment in 2012 set up a Stranded Assets Programme to understand these risks. In this report, the Stranded Assets programme suggests that the fossil fuel divestment campaign, could be one such risk.
“It’s crystal-clear that fossil fuels, most of them, are going to have to remain in the ground if we are going to avoid a real catastrophe and of course the value of stock is tied to that,” Paul Ehrlich said. “If we are not going to be able to use those fossil fuels, the stock is going to tank and places like Stanford have a fiscal responsibility to maintain the endowment. Having an investment in fossil fuels is a very bad investment.”