Leading Stanford professors call for end to fossil fuel investment

A collection of the sharpest minds at one of the world’s leading research universities have called for an about-turn on fossil fuel investment.

Professors at California’s Stanford University, including latest Fields medal winner Maryam Mirzakhani and a number of Nobel Laureates, have urged the university’s president, John Hennessy, and its board of trustees to divest away from all investment in oil, coal and gas companies and fully recognize the urgency of climate change.

Stanford already made moves to end its investment in coalmining companies last year when it cut all ties to that industry. However, in the summer of 2014 the university steered part of its $21 billion endowment into oil and gas companies.

However, in a letter signed by 300 faculty members dated January 11, 2015, the university is urged to take action now in order to play its part in the fight against climate change. The letter – seen by pv magazine – reiterates calls from the wider scientific community to keep the global warming rise to below 2 degrees between now and 2050.

Failure to take appropriate action on this front, states the letter, presents Stanford with a paradox. "If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?" muses the letter, concluding that a "reinvestment in a sustainable future" is the right thing to do.

The letter carefully avoids suggesting direct alternatives, but the implication is clear: supplant fossil fuels with renewable energy in order to fully safeguard the future for the pupils that the university teaches.

Clamor for cleaner

There has been growing support for fossil fuel divestment campaigns over the past few years but Stanford’s withdrawal from coalmining companies does not go far enough, suggests the letter. Harvard University was similarly campaigned against last year when 100 students and faculty urged the university to remove fossil fuel holdings from its own $32 billion endowment. The university refused, citing the move would have only a negligible financial impact.

A report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published yesterday suggested that the U.S. could affordably triple its renewable energy output to around 27% of total energy share by 2030, stating that at current investment rates the total will only reach 10% by that date.

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Stanford’s Paul Ehrlich – a population analyst and signatory of the letter – said that it was important that such agencies and leading universities took a stand against climate change. "It is very important that educational institutions in particular, and organizations that think of themselves as part of civil society, make this important step," he said. "It is symbolic. It is not going to instantly change the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, but it is damn important."

In the summer of 2014, leading private equity bank UBS issued a briefing to its clients advising that "large-scale, centralized power stations" are some 10-20 years from extinction and called on investors to back solar energy as the future. "By 2025 everybody will be able to produce and store power," said the report. "And it will be green and cost competitive, ie, not more expensive or even cheaper than buying power from utilities."

A month later the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBS) – the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune – joined a coalition of philanthropists pledging to rid themselves of more than $50 billion in fossil fuel assets. The move was welcomed by environmentalists and businessmen alike, with RBF President Stephen Heintz stating: "If John D. Rockefeller were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy."