It's time for American universities to consider divesting from fossil fuels

First, what is the significance of the social cause? University presidents have overwhelmingly acknowledged the harm caused by fossil fuels, though some, including Brown’s president, Christina H. Paxson, have argued that “this harm is moderated by the fact that coal is currently necessary for the functioning of the global economy.”

Then we’d ask about the school’s mission. Perhaps investments in fossil fuel are justified if profits are used for social good, like financial aid programs, which are supported by endowments. But most elite private colleges remain bastions of privilege. Public universities — especially community colleges, which have better track records on access — have a more compelling claim on this defense.

Next, how much would divestment cost? Not much. According to a 2012 report sponsored by the American Petroleum Institute, oil and natural gas constituted merely 2.1 percent of endowment holdings. Some research suggests that endowments would have performed better over the past decade had they excluded fossil-fuel companies.

Finally, how would divestment advance the cause?