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Stanford divests from coal; is that enough to keep the #gofossilfree momentum going?

Author and activist Bill McKibben has worked with anti-climate change group to encourage fossil fuel divestment at hundreds of college campuses around the country.
Author and activist Bill McKibben has worked with anti-climate change group to encourage fossil fuel divestment at hundreds of college campuses around the country.

Pitzer College’s record didn’t last long: Stanford University has become the largest higher-ed endowment in the country to announce a divestment related to fossil fuels. From Stanford’s statement to the press, released after a Board of Trustees decision: 

Stanford has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet, and we work intensively to do so through our research, our educational programs and our campus operations," said Stanford President John Hennessy. "The university's review has concluded that coal is one of the most carbon-intensive methods of energy generation and that other sources can be readily substituted for it. Moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future."

As at other schools, the trustees gave credit to students, anchored by Divest Stanford, and by extension to, whose organizers worked with the student movement.

On Twitter,’s leader, Bill McKibben, and those students wasted no time celebrating.

Unbelievable. Stanford divests from coal. What a win for the folks @DivestStanford and for the whole planet.

Stanford divests from Coal! #fossilfree @billmckibben #divestment #stanford

Today they’re celebrating in White Plaza, home to the Claw, where any political movement gathers steam, and which any Stanford neighbor, student, graduate, or professor will tell you is where everything important happens. (I grew up in the first category, and three of my family members are in the third.) The celebration’s certainly not premature; it’s hard-won, and in May, at Stanford, with exams still a month away, it’s bound to be reasonably large.

But it’s worth looking at the foundation of Stanford’s decision, and what it means for the next schools and institutions considering divestment.

Why did Stanford divest? 78% of students supported, @DivestStanford organized like hell. And CA is in a megadrought

Stanford’s own statement notes that the school “will not directly invest in approximately 100 publicly traded companies for which coal extraction is the primary business, and will divest of any current direct holdings in such companies.” An associate vice president, Lisa Lapin, told the New York Times that “the university’s coal holdings are a small fraction of its endowment” even as she emphasized that even a little of 18 billion is a lot of money.

The other thing is, coal’s not the only fossil fuel. It’s just the weakest, politically and economically.

#Coal is filthy and there are cheaper alternatives; #oil is dirty but it's still pretty unavoidable.

Is Stanford’s divestment complete? Is getting a big school out of just coal better than getting a bunch of smaller ones out of all fossil fuels? Will amy of this matter to Harvard? Dunno. (Sorry for going all Rumsfeld.) But it does seem like a crack is opening up among different divestment efforts, with some being more complete than others.

A few days ago, when the Natural Resources Defense Council announced a partnership with FTSE to create a new financial index that’s fossil fuel free, the index it created made no distinction between coal, oil, and gas. Before that, when Pitzer College announced its divestment plans, they were comprehensive, including not only fossil fuel divestment but also sustainable-resource investment. 

Instead, what Stanford seems to have set up is a narrower test for divestment. Again from the NYT, who quoted Deborah DeCotis, the chairwoman of the Stanford board of trustees’ special committee on investment responsibility:

the panel noted that coal produces the most carbon per British thermal unit of any widely used fossil fuel, that practical alternatives to burning coal are available, and that the university was not dependent on coal or coal-derived products.

The second two reasons, in particular, seem to suggest getting out of oil and gas may be a heavier lift. Even some supporters of’s #FossilFuelFree divestment campaign think there’s work left undone.

Hurray for Stanford for divesting from coal companies (now just has oil and gas left to divest from). via @sharethis

Divest Stanford seemed to acknowledge all of this - almost explicitly:

While we celebrate Stanford’s decision to divest, we recognize that the battle to protect our climate is far from over. Fossil Free Stanford, along with over 400 student campaigns across the country, maintains the goal of divesting from all fossil fuels. Stanford’s coal divestment alone will not be enough turn the tide on climate change. We call on university administrators across the nation to follow Stanford’s lead and begin the process of divestment.

Hopefully that won’t put a damper on White Plaza festivities.