October 15, 2014; Sydney Morning Herald

The Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra, Australia, has provoked a political row with its announcement that it will sell its investments in coal, oil and gas shares.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described the decision as “stupid.” The Treasurer, Joe Hockey, has accused ANU of being removed from reality. Assistant Infrastructure Minister Jamie Briggs called it “reckless.” Coal, oil, and gas mining and drilling companies, along with their industry bodies such as the Minerals Council of Australia, have also lined up to pour scorn, urging the university to reverse its decision.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Abbott, opening a new coal mine, had said, “Coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future, here in Australia, and right around the world.”

However, a few heavyweights have come out for the other side. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and former Treasurer John Hewson, both nominally on the same right-of-centre, free market, small government side of politics as Abbot and Hockey, joined 50 prominent Australians and ethical investors in an open letter backing the decision.

“For politicians to try to bully, coerce and influence this university is just outrageous,” Mr. Hewson said. “The big story here is what got the politicians so stirred up? Was it the Minerals Council? It virtually owned the previous government and appears to have large influence over this one.”

{loadmodule mod_banners,Ads for Advertisers 5}

ANU’s vice chancellor, Professor Ian Young, says there had been a “torrent of support” from students and the wider community. “They have been saying ‘don’t back down,’” he said. “There is tremendous enthusiasm out there around environmental issues and investment. To address these issues, ANU established a socially responsible investment policy. In developing this, we searched the world for best practice, and ultimately we modelled this policy largely on Stanford University’s, one of the world’s great universities and an institution that invests an endowment of $US19 billion.”

The ANU divestment is worth $14 million, representing less than 1.5 percent of its almost $1 billion portfolio and is a fraction of the market worth of the companies involved.

ANU is joining thirteen U.S. universities, including Stanford, which have already committed to divest from the fossil fuel industry. In the UK, Glasgow University was the first to make the same decision; other UK universities are pondering their policy moves. In Australia, Sydney University is the only other that has so far ruled out future investments in coalmining.

In the wider universe, everyone from the Rockefeller family down is realising it’s time to move on. As of last month, more than 800 global investors—including foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, religious groups, healthcare organizations, universities and local governments—have pledged to withdraw a total of $50 billion from fossil fuel investments over the next five years as a result of the campaign which began on college campuses in the United States three years ago.—John Godfrey