When Stanford University divested its endowment (now valued at $21.4 billion) from the coal industry last May, I was elated. As an organizer with Fossil Free Stanford, the student campaign calling for Stanford to divest from the fossil fuel industry, it felt incredible to see proof of the impact our movement could have. Our team has been riding the wave of our victory for months.
So when I found out last week that Stanford had reinvested its money in the oil and gas industry, I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. And as of now, Fossil Free Stanford is officially putting Stanford on notice: our campaign is nowhere near done yet.
Fossil fuel divestment has sparked a global movement of colleges, foundations, governments, and religious organizations. It is a powerful statement that institutions can make about the urgency of climate change. By refusing to invest in the fuels causing the climate crisis, universities like Stanford can use their power and influence to break political deadlock and spur action.
Our Stanford campaign began two years ago, with a group of new friends chatting over pizza. We have since collected 3000 petition signatures, passed both undergraduate and graduate student senate resolutions, built support from hundreds of faculty and alumni, and lobbied the administration. Last spring, the undergraduate student body passed a referendum in favor of fossil fuel divestment with resounding 75 percent support. A month later, Stanford University announced it was divesting from the coal industry.
Coal was a huge victory for our campus, and for the global divestment movement. Stanford was and still is the biggest endowment to divest from any fossil fuels. And it's true that if you had to pick climate change's worst of the worst, coal would win the prize. Contributing 44 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and 670,000 air-quality related premature deaths in China alone each year, coal is an egregiously destructive investment that many institutions continue to make. We are proud that Stanford is no longer one of them.
But unfortunately, ditching coal is nowhere near enough. Even if the world could stop burning coal immediately, the proven reserves of the oil and gas industry would still be more than enough to warm our world well over the 2 degree Celsius limit set out by the U.N. Yet oil and gas companies continue to explore for new reserves, and use their immense power to stall political action against climate change.
Oil and natural gas are not a "blue bridge to a green future," but an economic and political force that, if left unchecked, will further condemn our generation to climate chaos.
Stanford's coal divestment was a powerful first step. But as Bloomberg reported, Stanford's latest Securities and Exchange Commission filings reveal new holdings in three major oil and gas companies. These include $15.5 million in Rex Energy Corporation, which is fracking the Marcellus Shale, and another $11.1 million in YPF SA and Petrobas Argentina SA, two South American oil and gas extraction companies.
Yes, that's right -- after divesting all direct holdings in the coal industry, my university expanded its investments in other sources of carbon pollution the very next quarter.
Stanford's Statement on Investment Responsibility allows for divestment from companies causing "substantial social injury." When it divested from coal, Stanford acknowledged the social injury and injustices posed by climate change, and proved willing to make investment decisions accordingly. Following that action with more investments in oil and gas fundamentally betrays the values behind the original commitment.
As one Stanford publication put it: "like a drug addict in remission, [Stanford] just can't fracking stay away from the bad stuff."
The climate crisis requires more than partial action. It demands bold moral leadership from each of us as individuals, communities, and institutions. Replacing coal with the next worst thing is just not good enough.
So long as Stanford continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry, it continues to bet that this industry's destructive business model will prevail, leaving an unstable climate for my generation and those to come. It continues to choose short-term profits over the lives and livelihoods of people around the world. And Stanford's students, alumni, faculty, and community members will not accept that.
There are real communities already fighting the impacts of fossil fuels and climate change, and Stanford must stand with rather than against them. I think of my community back home this week in Vancouver, Canada, bravely standing up against pipeline projects that would enable reckless expansion of the Alberta Tar Sands. I think of the people of Richmond, California, just across the San Francisco Bay from Stanford, seeking to build a clean energy economy in direct response to the environmental injustices of the nearby Chevron refinery. I think of the resilient people of the Philippines, rebuilding their lives and homes after being hit by the strongest storm in history last year.
Our campaign at Stanford, and our global movement, are motivated by a powerful vision of a just and sustainable future, one defined by clean energy and empowered communities. We are taking a stand for our generation and the many more to come. We are taking action in solidarity with those around the world on the front lines of climate change who are already facing worsening impacts.
We will not be placated by individual steps in the right direction. We will celebrate each victory, and then translate those victories into unstoppable momentum.
Coal was only the beginning.