Columbia University has announced its plan to divest from publicly-traded oil and gas companies, releasing a revised set of principles for the Columbia University Investment Management Company (IMC) and formalizing a policy of non-investment in the future. 

The announcement is the latest in an ongoing, multi-year process of examination, dialogue, and a string of protests at the institution.

“There is an undeniable obligation binding upon Columbia and other universities to confront the climate crisis across every dimension of our institutions,” Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger said.

“The effort to achieve net-zero emissions must be sustained over time, employing all the tools available to us and engaging all who are at Columbia today and those who will follow us in the years ahead,” he added.

The Columbia IMC is expected to expand its evaluation of investment managers across sectors to assess whether they have plans to create portfolios with net-zero emissions by 2050.

Additionally, the Columbia IMC will reportedly focus on investing in developing technologies that contribute toward the goal of net-zero emissions and greenhouse gas reductions.

History of Protests at Columbia

Columbia has been at the forefront of recognizing the negative effects of climate change. In the fall of 2012, Columbia’s Divest For Climate Justice Campaign started

The group conducted numerous sit-ins, protests, and conversations with President Bollinger over the years, demanding that Columbia freeze “all investments in the top 200 publicly-traded fossil fuel companies, according to the Carbon Underground 200 list, and divest completely by 2020.”

In 2016, a proposal formulated and signed by 25 members of the university’s Earth Institute was submitted to the university calling for divestment of all fossil fuel company shares.

In the same year, a sit-in outside President Bollinger’s office prompted the university to threaten seven students with suspension. The student organizers said it was the first time the administration threatened suspension over the course of their four year campaign.

In 2017, student groups and faculty members submitted a proposal divest from companies that derived more than 35 percent of their revenue from thermal coal production. The groups claimed that these companies were “not ethically aligned with the University’s mission.”

Other Universities and Fossil Fuels

These protests have inspired students at other prestigious schools such as Georgetown, Harvard, and Yale to put pressure on their administrators to pull investments from fossil fuel industries.

Georgetown was one of the first universities to give in. It announced last year that it would completely divest its $1.8 billion endowments of public and private investments in fossil fuel companies over the next 10 years.

Students at Harvard University remained unsatisfied with their university’s response. They organized Divest Harvard, in a press release writing that the university had failed in following other institutions such as the University of California, Georgetown, Brown, and Oxford in its commitment to fossil fuel divestment.

Yale University chief investment officer David Swensen opposed the school’s divestment of its $30.3 billion endowment in fossil fuels. However, it later announced in October last year that it will form a committee to evaluate the university’s investment policies in relation to companies that produce fossil fuels.