Brown University announced Sunday that its board has decided not to sell off investment holdings in coal companies. Brown's policies set out criteria for divesting the endowment of certain kinds of investments, and a letter released from Christina H. Paxson said that while she believed coal production causes "social harm," one of the criteria, she was not convinced on other requirements.
"The existence of social harm is a necessary but not sufficient rationale for Brown to divest," she wrote. "Once social harm is established, divestiture may be warranted if either divestiture is likely to help reduce the harm or the harm is sufficiently grave. Taking the second of these criteria first, is it the case that the social harm from coal is so grave that divestiture is warranted? Absent a bright-line threshold for gravity, this is a judgment call, and a difficult one at that. I believe that although the social harm is clear, this harm is moderated by the fact that coal is currently necessary for the functioning of the global economy. Coal is the source of approximately 40 percent of the world’s electricity, and it provides needed energy for millions of people throughout the world. In many regions, there are serious technological impediments to transitioning away from coal. In addition, coal is used in the production of other products, such as cement and steel, which are central to the economies of both developed and developing countries. The comparison to tobacco is instructive. Unlike tobacco, which arguably has no social value, a cessation of the production and use of coal would itself create significant economic and social harm to countless communities across the globe." She added that "Brown’s holdings are much too small for divestiture to reduce corporate profits. Furthermore, because the profits of these companies are determined primarily by the demand for their products rather than their stock prices, divestiture would not reduce profits even if Brown’s holdings were orders of magnitude larger."
The student group that has been pushing for divestment of coal holdings outlines its position here.