For the last few years many environmentalists have been working on a campaign to try to get universities to stop investing their endowments in fossil fuel companies.

The idea is to force a national discussion of climate change. In the 1980s many college students demanded their institutions divest from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. Climate change, so the thinking goes, is also something we can confront by targeting the companies responsible for the problem.

Now it appears someone big has listened. Or, well, it listened to part of the argument. According to a press release from Stanford University:

Acting on a recommendation of Stanford’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing, the Board of Trustees announced that Stanford will not make direct investments in coal mining companies. The move reflects the availability of alternate energy sources with lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal.

In taking the action, the trustees endorsed the recommendation of the university’s Advisory Panel on Investment Responsibility and Licensing (APIRL). This panel, which includes representatives of students, faculty, staff and alumni, conducted an extensive review over the last several months of the social and environmental implications of investment in fossil fuel companies.

Persuading colleges to stop investing in fossil fuel companies is one of the major campus trends of the last few years.

As Bill McKibben put it in 2012, the “fossil fuel industry [is] an enemy that must be defeated,” because the industry uses “money and political influence to block climate action in Washington.” He wants us to start seeing fossil fuel companies as the moral equivalent of big tobacco.

Activists are now turning their attention to Harvard in the hopes that a school of such prominence will have a major impact on the divestment movement in general.

Note that “no coal investments” isn’t fossil fuel divestment. Stanford will continue to invest its vast, $18.7 billion, endowment in oil and gas companies, still, this is a pretty important change. According to an article at CNBC, Bob Litterman, chairman of the risk committee for hedge fund Kepos Capital, put it like this:

I think we’re at a tipping point. There’s going to be a lot of focus in the next couple years on what is the social cost of carbon, how do we create appropriate incentives and, as investors wake up to the fact that this is happening, we’re going to see more divestment, more investment in the next generation (of energy).

This is unlikely to have any adverse impact on the endowment itself.

Stanford won’t say how much money it currently has invested in coal companies. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer