Divestment from Fossil Fuels

Matthew Lebovitz
January 28, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014

Fossil Fuels

Fig. 1: Fossil Fuel Powerplant Operation. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons, primarily coal, fuel oil or natural gas, formed from the remains of dead plants and animals. Fossil fuel industries drill or mine for these energy sources. They burn them to produce electricity or refine them for use as fuel for heating or transportation. Over the past 20 years, nearly 75% of human caused emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels. [1]

Climate Change

Earth's average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees F over the past century. Small changes in the average temperature of the planet can severely alter global climate and weather. [2] Ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising. Humans are largely responsible for these changes. Over the last century, human activities have resulted in increases of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Most of these gases are largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels to produce energy.


Universities, religious organizations, retirement funds, and other institutions invest in oil and gas companies to generate income. As of November 23, 2014, college and university endowments have roughly $22 billion, of 5% of their assets, invested in energy and natural resources. [3] In the past two years, many public and private institutions have announced plans to divest fossil fuels from their portfolios after facing pressure from environmental activists.

Divestment at Stanford University

On May 6 2014, Stanford University announced that it would divest its endowment of stock in coal-mining companies. The University said that coal's status as a major source of carbon pollution persuaded the trustees to remove companies "whose principal business is coal" from their investment portfolio. [4] Stanford did not divest from other fossil fuel companies, but this step was seen to increase pressure on other major universities. At least 11 other smaller universities have divested from fossil fuel companies, but Stanford has the largest endowment. [4] Fossil fuel divestment is not about bankrupting the industry, but instead challenging a business model that threatens lives around the world.

© Matthew Lebovitz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M. Jaccard, Sustainable Fossil Fuels (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), p. 175.

[2] H. A. Baer, Global Capitalism and Climate Change: The Need for an Alternative World System (AltaMira Press, 2012), p.19.

[3] R. Stavins and E. Dorsey, "Should Endowments Divest Their Holdings in Fossil Fuels?," Wall Street Journal, 23 Nov 14.

[4] M. Wines, "Stanford to Purge $18 Billion Endowment of Coal Stock," New York Times, 6 May 14.