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Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene


Since 2012, students and others have pushed U.S. Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) to divest their endowments from fossil fuel producing industries. In the past decade, fossil fuel divestment has become the fastest growing divestment movement in history, with over 140 U.S. HEIs announcing divestment commitments. We conduct a quantitative analysis of the three phases of U.S. 4-year HEI divestment announcements (as well as rejections of divestment) to better understand the dynamics. Announcements began (2012-2017) with a number of schools divesting, followed by a second phase where new divestment announcements slowed. The current phase, which began around 2019, shows a renewed increase in divestments. Formal rejections of divestment followed a similar pattern in the early years, where rejections were slightly more common and represented more endowment value, but have declined as some schools reversed public positions. Schools that have divested from fossil fuels now represent roughly 3% of 4-year U.S. HEIs and 35% of endowment value. Roughly 85% more endowment value is now associated with U.S. schools that have divested from fossil fuels than with those that have rejected it. Our analysis points to endowment dependence (the share of operating expenses derived from the endowment) as a potentially important indicator of whether a school would divest, with early divestments from all fossil fuels coming nearly exclusively from schools with a relatively low endowment dependence. We discuss the implications of these findings in the context of different theories of change for the divestment movement. In particular, we note that over 99% of 4-year HEIs representing roughly 95% of endowment value are less dependent upon their endowment than at least one recently divested HEI, suggesting that large endowment or high dependence on endowment are no longer strict barriers to FFD for most schools.


Fossil fuel divestment, Sustainability, Climate change, Coal, Leadership, Private equity





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This paper has been updated from the author’s submitted manuscript to the open access version of record.



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