An Update on Fossil Fuel Divestment
Last August, a number of environmental groups and prominent activists asked the nation’s leading science and natural history museums—including the California Academy of Sciences—where we stood on the issue of fossil fuel divestment.
I responded immediately, since it was an issue we had already started to work on.
In fact, the Academy had already taken the basic position that our financial investments should align with our commitment to global sustainability, including addressing the issue of climate change. And in March of this year, our Board unanimously approved a detailed plan to divest our investment assets from fossil fuel companies.
Our trustees, senior leaders, staff, members, and guests have been overwhelmingly in favor of this move, as it reflects the values of the Academy and the community we serve.
Another value of ours is transparency. So, today, I would like to provide an update on how we are doing in our divestment process.
By the summer of 2015, before we were publicly asked about divestment, we had already eliminated all of our direct investments in fossil fuel companies. And we had already begun to phase out all oil, gas, and mineral leases on lands with historic mineral rights given to us by donors during the last few decades. Moreover, we had also adopted a new gift policy, which helps ensure that financial contributions to the Academy are consistent with our stated mission, purposes, and priorities—including sustainability. And, starting last fall, we started to offer “low carbon” retirement plan options to our staff.
We were proud to have made so much progress in such little time. Then we were ready for the next step—divesting our endowment assets.
In the past, our endowment managers had made some investments in fossil fuel companies as part of their overall strategy to diversify and invest across the larger world economy—just like most mutual funds, IRAs, and 401(k) retirement plans do. In fact, the endowments and other financial assets of nearly all universities, foundations, museums, and other non-profits are invested in a similar way. And we face similar challenges.
Over the last year, our Board of Trustees, Academy staff, and investment managers have been working together to determine how, exactly, we could divest our investment assets from these fossil fuel companies.
But it turns out that this is not as easy as it sounds, as there are still no clear guidelines for divesting, and there is significant debate regarding the precise definition of a “fossil fuel company.” Where do you draw the line? Who decides? How do you stay accountable to these goals? How are they reported?
We wanted to do something meaningful and rigorous, so we took our time, did our research, and came up with a practical plan. And, unlike some institutions that have claimed to divest, but without saying exactly how they are doing it, we want to be transparent about the steps we are taking.
Our plan, approved by our Trustees in March 2016, is straightforward.
- First, the plan measures our financial exposure to fossil fuel companies against the Carbon Underground 200 (CU 200) list—an index that has identified the “top” 100 public coal companies and 100 public oil and gas companies globally, ranked by the potential carbon content of their stated reserves. We have decided to implement our divestment strategy against this index, to ensure consistency, transparency, and accountability in what we are doing.
- Second, for our directly-owned separate account investments, the plan instructs our financial account managers to immediately (1) prohibit new investments into CU 200 companies, and (2) run-off all existing investments in CU 200 companies. We expect most of the run-off to be completed by year-end. This will significantly reduce our exposure to fossil fuel companies.
- Third, regarding pooled fund investments (where our assets are joined together with many other investors) that are focused on fossil fuel companies (especially those in the CU 200, but also more broadly), the plan will also (1) prohibit new investments and (2) run-off of all existing investments. So far, we have redeemed from two of our three investments in this area. However, the sale of one fund would create a large financial loss for the endowment right now. As a result, it may take a number of years to fully complete the run-off of this investment. However, we are thoroughly committed to its run-off and are proceeding accordingly.
- Finally, the plan asks our endowment advisors to encourage our remaining, broadly diversified, pooled fund managers (where fossil fuel companies represent a small fraction of the total exposure) to develop products that completely exclude any exposure to fossil fuel companies. The evolution of that market is still in its infancy, but we are actively following it. When those products exist and are sold at competitive prices, we expect to transition those remaining investments completely away from fossil fuel companies too.
As you can see, we have a clear plan and we have made a lot of progress already. We are working with transparent, specific guidelines—starting with a measureable and consistent definition of fossil fuel companies—and we are moving step by step toward full divestment. Much of our divestment has happened already, and much more will happen within the year. And, of course, I will continue to update you all on our progress.
We are also standing by to help other institutions—other museums, colleges and universities, foundations and non-profits—to share what we are doing. The divestment challenge is complex, and it’s not as straightforward as it might first appear, but I believe that collaboration with other institutions can help the process greatly. Of course, we are eager to learn from other institutions as well, and may adapt our plans as we learn more.
I am proud that the Academy is walking the walk, and not just talking the talk, on the issue of climate change and sustainability. From our world-leading education programs and exhibits, our state-of-the-art double LEED Platinum building, our real-world programs in conservation and sustainability, and now our own investments, the Academy is working to make a real difference in the world.
Dr. Jonathan Foley
An expert in ecosystem science and sustainability, Dr. Foley is steering the Academy through an exciting chapter in its 160-year history, leading its efforts to explore and explain the natural world while addressing critical sustainability challenges. Read his full bio.