Stanford recently announced it would divest its holdings in the coal industry; Yale University's investment office asked its money managers to examine how its investments affect climate change and to look into avoiding companies that do not take sensible "steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions." The announcement did not satisfy students pressing for divestment.
Pitzer College, however, is one of a number of schools that have promised more extensive efforts to remove fossil fuels from their endowments. Donald P. Gould, a trustee and chair of the Pitzer investment committee and president of Gould Asset Management, said that everyone involved in the decision knew that the direct and immediate effect on the companies would be minimal.
"I don't think that anyone who favors divestment is arguing that the institutions' sale of the fossil fuel company stock is going to have much impact, if any, on either the stocks or the companies themselves," he said, since the market capitalizations of the companies is immense.
Even if the movement were to depress share prices, the energy companies, which make enormous profits from their products, do not need to go to capital markets to raise money, he noted. But in the long term, he said, "divestment seeks to work indirectly on these companies by changing the conversation about the climate."
Pension funds have proved a harder sell. While Hesta Australia, a health care industry retirement fund worth $26 billion, announced last week that it would get out of coal, many others have not. PensionDanmark said in a statement that it has invested 7 percent of its $26 billion portfolio in renewable energy with plans to raise that percentage over time. "Divestment will itself not contribute to solving the challenges of global climate change, and we believe it is not a very wise way to try and solve the issue," the company said.
Torben Moger Pedersen, the fund's chief executive, added that if the returns from a traditional carbon-based power plant and a wind farm were equal, the fund would invest in the wind farm. But, he added, "We are not missionaries."
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In an interview last week at the Rockefeller family's longtime New York offices at 30 Rockefeller Center, Mr. Heintz, Mr. Rockefeller and Valerie Rockefeller Wayne, the chairwoman of the fund, spoke of the family's longstanding commitment to use the fund to advance environmental issues.
The family has also engaged in shareholder activism with Exxon Mobil, the largest successor to Standard Oil. Members have met privately with the company over the years in efforts to get it to moderate its stance on issues pertaining to the environment and climate change. They acknowledged that they have not caused the company to greatly alter its course.
The Rockefellers have also tried to spur change through direct investment. In the 1980s, Mr. Rockefeller said, members of the family formed a $2 million fund to invest directly in renewable-energy alternatives. They were too early.