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[whitespace] students Arch Rivals: Stanford student Dave Robinson and Jen Brock of Ozone Action are critical of the way Stanford University invests its endowments, which they believe could be put to better use.

Christopher Gardner



Students and faculty want Stanford University to use its $4.7 billion endowment to make a statement on global warming

By Michael Learmonth

IN 1987, STANFORD UNIVERSITY galvanized the anti-apartheid movement on college campuses across the nation. In a stunning display of solidarity, it became the first university to use the financial clout of its endowment to discourage corporate America from supporting South Africa's racist regime. A decade later, Stanford made another statement by pulling its endowment out of the tobacco industry.

Today, a group of graduate students and faculty is asking Stanford to take another unprecedented step. The issue this time is global warming and a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization called the Global Climate Coalition.

In 1997, a 100-nation global conference on climate change in Japan produced a document known as the Kyoto Protocol. If ratified by the Senate, the protocol would commit the United States to reducing worldwide greenhouse gas emissions. Corporations such as Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, Ford and General Motors have vigorously opposed any international treaty addressing climate change. Instead, they have poured money into the Global Climate Coalition, which calls itself "a voice for business in the global warming debate." The GCC has been extremely successful, spending millions promoting the notion that global warming isn't a problem, and if it were, solutions should not involve international treaties or any regulations on industry that could cost American jobs.

Due in part to the lobbying efforts of the GCC, it's unlikely that President Clinton will submit a bill in support of Kyoto to the Congress before he leaves office.

But some Stanford faculty members and students want the Stanford board of trustees to use the clout of the university's $4.7 billion endowment to get the corporations to stop funding the GCC.

Among the big names on a petition making the rounds is Don Kennedy, a former Stanford University president and now a Bing Professor of Environmental Science.

It was on Kennedy's watch as president that Stanford made its statement on South Africa. He would now like to see Stanford use its influence and voting powers as a large shareholder to convince corporations to withdraw support of the GCC.

"They are opposed to any efforts at all to mitigate the addition of gases that contribute to global warming," Kennedy says. "And they are spending lots of money to do it. It seems to me shareholders ought to question them on how they're spending our money."

As a private institution, Stanford keeps its portfolio under tight wraps, but it is known to include large investments in Texaco, Chevron and other GCC members. Corporate support allowed the GCC to spend $13 million in one month last year "debunking" the existence of global warming phenomena.

Circulating the petition on campus is Ozone Action, a little nonprofit group dedicated to taking on the GCC.

The GCC is "a front group that's funding a misinformation campaign to deny the legitimate threat of global warming," says Jen Block, an Ozone Action organizer with a sticker on her laptop that says "Mean Corporations Suck."

Ozone Action volunteers are also rallying students at the University of Washington and Harvard University. Its first victory came last month when students and faculty at the University of Washington passed a resolution calling on the trustees to divest from GCC members.

Frank Maisano, a Washington, D.C.-based spokesman for the GCC, seems amused that his organization has become the target of campus unrest.

"If anybody is talking about misleading information, it's them," he says. An international treaty such as Kyoto, he says, would unfairly burden U.S. companies and reduce profits for shareholders of GCC member companies. The irony of it all, he says, is that even the foundations funding the work of nonprofits like Ozone Action, like the MacArthur, Rockefeller and W. Alton Jones foundations, also have investments in GCC member companies.

"Our members are some of the strongest companies on Wall Street for the average investor," Maisano says. "At the same time they're helping fund these foundations."

Yet the letter, signed by students and faculty including Kennedy and the renowned Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich, isn't asking that Stanford divest from these companies, just that it use its powers as a major shareholder to get them to rescind their membership in the GCC.

"That's exactly what we did with South Africa," Kennedy says. "We chose to start a dialogue with companies that were doing business there in hopes of getting them to change their practices."

Kennedy predicts that if Stanford and other nonprofit investors open discussions with GCC members, some of them may decide to follow former GCC members British Petroleum and Shell out of the coalition.

That would be fine with John-O Niles, a cheery blond graduate student from Vermont. Niles, 29, came to Stanford after spending several years in Africa helping care for sick and wounded gorillas. As a graduate student and policy analyst, he's studied the Kyoto Protocol and considers it the best chance for addressing the globe's two most pressing environmental problems: climate change and deforestation.

Niles says 75 percent of greenhouse gases are produced by burning fossil fuels and 25 percent are caused indirectly by rain-forest destruction. Under Kyoto, the U.S. would be able to mitigate its own carbon production by helping other nations preserve their rain forests. That way, Niles says, the U.S. could take care of its obligation to the planet for the next 50 years and preserve the "green swath of forest around the equator" that cools the earth and harbors 50 percent of the world's species.

Niles says Kyoto would benefit Silicon Valley's biotech and electronics industries. Biotech firms would benefit from the biological diversity such a treaty would preserve, and the computer industry would be put in a more competitive position for consumer dollars as the price of more polluting durable goods, such as automobiles, goes up.

By making a statement, Niles believes Stanford is in a position to galvanize support for Kyoto.

"If the U.S. doesn't ratify it, the whole thing dies," Niles says. "If Stanford looks at this thing and approves it, that will create a national debate."

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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