College campuses are becoming a hotspot in the battle against climate change. Activists at around 300 schools are pressuring the institutions to divest their holdings in oil, natural gas and coal companies -- the fossil fuels that scientists blame for carbon-induced global warming.
The movement, which started in 2012, is targeting the top 200 companies in the sector. It gained traction earlier this week when Stanford University announced that it would "no longer make direct investments in coal mining companies" because of the harm it causes the environment. About 37 percent of the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal.
College endowments, which control about $450 billion, have for years been a target among activists seeking change on a variety of issues such as South Africa's apartheid policies and the genocide in Sudan's Darfur region.
But skeptics have questioned whether Stanford's decision to unload its coal investment will do much to help the environment. Indeed, Harvard, Brown and Washington University in St. Louis have considered and rejected similar proposals.
"The net effect on global warming and climate change will be zero," said Kenneth E. Redd, the National Association of College and University Business Officers' director of research and policy analysis. He noted that plenty of investors will be eager to buy the coal stocks Stanford is selling. "Divestment changes the ownership of production, but that doesn't mean there's less production."
The activist group behind the divestment campaign, 350.org, disputes Redd's arguments. Spokesman Jamie Henn says the movement is planning a long-term fight much like the successful anti-apartheid movement during the 1980s and 1990s.
"It took the anti-apartheid movement 10 years to have an impact," he said. "We don't have that kind of time with climate change."
Luke Popovich, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, an industry trade group, blasted Stanford's decision, accusing it of putting "political expediency over rational and humanitarian considerations." He noted that 1.3 billion people around the world lack electricity and won't get it without coal.
"One would think Stanford, of all institutions, would also appreciate the need to develop technologies to make coal cleaner to use, rather to stop its use and prolong the miseries of millions of people in developing countries," he said in an email.
The issue, though, seems to be resonating on some college campuses. Yale Corporation, the university's governing body, is reviewing the issue, according to spokesman Tom Conroy, who didn't elaborate. Duke University has no plans to take a step similar to Stanford's, but it will "continue to evaluate this issue through our Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility," said spokesman Mike Shoenfeld.
Although Stanford won't invest in 100 publicly traded companies "for which coal extraction is the primary business," it isn't isolating itself entirely from the industry. Its policy doesn't apply to Warren Buffett's Bershire Hathaway (BRK.A), owner of BNSF railway, which hauls enough coal to power one out of every 10 U.S. homes, or to General Electric's (GE) Power Systems business, which sells equipment used in coal-fired generation.
"There would be a much greater level of complexity in making divestment decisions in industries where the use of coal, as opposed to the original extraction of it, represents some portion of the business," wrote Stanford spokesman Brad Heyward. "That said, the trustees monitor investment responsibility matters on an ongoing basis, and it is possible there will be continuing discussion of these issues in the future."