The Coal Divestment Toolkit: Moving Endowments Beyond Coal

Divestment is the process of selling an asset for either financial or social goals.i Divestment is a powerful way to take a stand against companies involved in an activity that is morally reprehensible. This strategy has been used to send a strong message and to force change in corporate policies and governance. Through divestment campaigns, shareholders (the people and organizations that own corporate stock) take responsibility for the actions of the companies they own and demand change or sell their shares.

Why should universities divest from coal-fired utilities and coal mining companies? Coal is a dirty, dangerous fuel—obtaining it destroys mountains, burning it releases hazardous emissions, and disposing of it results in hazardous toxic waste. Every year in the U.S., 21,000 deaths, 24,000 hospitalizations, and 280,000 severe asthma attacks are attributable to the coal industry. Coal is the largest source of mercury pollution in the country, affecting 1 in 12 U.S. women, and damages from the coal industry cost the U.S. $100 billion a year in health costs. Additionally, coal is scorching the planet; it is the largest source of global warming pollution in the U.S.

Many universities are profiting from this dirty, dangerous, and increasingly risky industry. Is the notion that growing the value of a school’s endowment is more important than the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer from coal-related illnesses?

The fact is, today there are alternative investments that make equal or better returns. The emerging renewables and clean technology industries are among the fastest growing sectors of the U.S. economy. Even investing in the campus itself through programs such as green revolving loan funds can provide real returns while creating educational opportunities. For universities, which are educating and training emerging leaders, the question comes down to whether they are investing in the future, with its new technology solutions that will create jobs and a healthier, cleaner world, or in the past, with its risky dirty energy holdings that are contributing to global problems.

In the 1980s, students witnessed the atrocities happening in South Africa. Responding to the apartheid system that disenfranchised people of color, the mass democratic movement called for worldwide governments to impose economic sanctions on South Africa. The U.S., which was deeply tied to South Africa, refused. In response, students realized that they could take matters into their own hands and pressure their universities to divest. Through the power of student activism, one university after another divested from South Africa. The country became a moral pariah; owning stock in businesses that benefited from apartheid became morally unacceptable. The apartheid system began to unravel and was ultimately dismantled. In short, college divestment activism can be a powerful tool.

Students have already pushed their schools to reduce global warming pollution, to retire campus-owned coal plants, and to invest in renewable energy and green jobs. Students once again can come together to expose coal as a moral pariah and to pressure universities to divest their coal holdings and reinvest in a clean energy future for the benefit of students and the global community.

i Investopedia, “Divestment,” accessed August 2011,