Seventeen foundations controlling nearly $1.8 billion in investments have united to commit to pulling their money out of companies that do business in fossil fuels, the group announced on Thursday.
The move is a victory for a developing divestiture campaign that has found success largely among small colleges and environmentally conscious cities, but has not yet won over the wealthiest institutions like Harvard, Brown and Swarthmore.
But the participation of the foundations, including the Russell Family Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America and the John Merck Fund, is the largest commitment to the effort, and stems in part from a push among philanthropies to bring their investing in line with their missions.
"At a minimum, our grants should not be undercut by our investments," said Ellen Dorsey, executive director of the Wallace Global Fund, which is practically divested of fossil fuels already and is coordinating the effort among foundations. "If you owned fossil fuels in your investment portfolio, it became increasingly clear to foundations that they own climate change, and they're potentially profiting from those investments," at the same time as they make grants to fight the issue.
She said she expected several larger foundations to commit to the effort, which includes moving investments to renewable energy or other sustainability ventures, in the coming months.
Among the largest in the current group is the Park Foundation, with a portfolio worth roughly $335 million, and the Schmidt Family Foundation, with about $304 million, co-founded by Google's executive chairman, Eric E. Schmidt.
The divestiture campaign is modeled on earlier efforts aimed at ending apartheid in South Africa and ceasing to support tobacco companies. Many groups are involved, but the movement has largely been escalated by a grass-roots organization, 350.org, whose name refers to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which some scientists say is the maximum safe level, a threshold already exceeded.
In addition to the foundations, 22 cities, two counties, 20 religious organizations, nine colleges and universities and six other institutions had signed up to rid themselves of investments in fossil fuel companies, frequently defined as the top 200 coal-, oil- and gas-producing companies identified in a report from the Carbon Tracker Initiative based in London.
The campaign's expansion comes as institutions like public pension funds are changing their investment strategies to reflect a calculation of the so-called carbon bubble. That idea holds that most of the coal, oil and gas reserves owned by fossil fuel-based companies cannot be burned without dire climate consequences, meaning that the value of those companies will plummet once governments start strictly limiting emissions.
Some pension funds, like those of California and New York, are looking to pressure conventional energy companies to address the risks of climate change. But in some cities, like San Francisco and Boulder, Colo., officials are urging their pension funds to divest themselves of the investments.
Bill McKibben, president and co-founder of 350.org, said he had been encouraged by the spread of the argument "that fossil fuel companies as they're currently incarnated are essentially rogue companies, that they have in their reserves far more carbon than any scientist thinks it's safe to burn."
Divestment advocates have run up against opposition from some of the major academic institutions, which argue that the move would have little practical effect on the activities of fossil fuel companies and that institutions would be better positioned to press for change through their roles as shareholders. Endowment officials have also said that their primary purpose is to maximize returns.
"Universities own a very small fraction of the market capitalization of fossil fuel companies," Drew Faust, Harvard's president wrote in a statement in October of the university's decision not to sell. "If we and others were to sell our shares, those shares would no doubt find other willing buyers. Divestment is likely to have negligible financial impact on the affected companies. And such a strategy would diminish the influence or voice we might have with this industry."
But the foundation executives, whose organizations are at different stages of examining and shifting their investments, said they were convinced that the more compelling action was to take their money away.
Olivia Farr, chairwoman of the John Merck Fund, said there had been concern about financial performance among some board members at first. "But that was pretty quickly alleviated as we got excited about some of the new investments we were making," she said, adding that the fund, which is about 97 percent divested of fossil fuel, was up roughly 20 percent last year.
Executives said they had become convinced that the move made economic sense.
"Freeing up resources through the divestment allows us to concentrate on the renewables future," said Richard Woo, chief executive of the Russell Family Foundation, "and to really see the marketplace as a platform for this kind of change."By DIANE CARDWELL