The movement to cut fossil fuels is getting powerful – albeit, unlikely – new allies: heirs to John D. Rockefeller’s colossal, 140-year-old oil fortune.
On Monday, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF), an international charitable foundation run by descendants of the billionaire oil tycoon, is formally announcing plans to divest assets from the hydrocarbon industries in favor of renewable energy sources. The move falls directly in between a 120-country climate summit to take place Tuesday in New York, and the largest climate march in history, which drew approximately 300,000 demonstrators to the streets of midtown Manhattan on Sunday.
While the gesture is largely symbolic and likely to have little immediate impact on traditional energy companies, members of the Rockefeller clan are hopeful it will inspire other investors to seriously consider the environmental consequences of burning fossil fuels at the current rate. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the summer of 2014 was the warmest on Earth since records began in 1880 – one decade after John D. Rockefeller founded Standard Oil.
“Our divestment from fossil fuels, which is now underway, will be accomplished through a careful process of evaluating our exposure and a phased approach that proceeds as quickly as is prudent,” said the foundation in a statement Monday. “We hope that the framework the RBF has adopted to guide our divestment and investment strategies will be of interest to other foundations and institutional investors as we also expect to learn from the experience of others.”
The first phase of the Fund’s divestment process will focus on limiting exposure to coal and tar sands, the statement said, with a goal of reducing those investments to less than one percent of the total portfolio by the end of the year. According to the consulting firm Arabella Advisors, which tracks the global fossil fuel divestment movement, the RBG is one of 181 institutions and local governments that have pledged to redirect investments toward clean-energy alternatives. Six hundred and fifty six individuals have also made similar commitments. All told, these groups and individuals represent over $50 billion in assets.
Some universities have been slower to jump on the bandwagon, however, despite the fact that the divestment movement began on college campuses. As the New York Times reported, the university with the biggest endowment from fossil fuel companies, Harvard, declined to divest, saying in a statement from the president that the school’s $32.7 billion endowment “is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.
On Tuesday, President Obama will join heads of state from more than 120 countries for a climate summit in New York. The meeting, convened by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, will focus on possible remedies for climate change, though binding agreements aren’t expected to come until the 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris. According to the Washington Post, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, China, will be represented by its vice premier at Tuesday’s summit, rather than by its president.