Tutu leads the climate divestment charge

John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune on oil. Now his heirs are abandoning fossil fuels.

The family whose legendary wealth flowed from Standard Oil is planning to announce on Monday that its $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, is joining the divestment movement.

The announcement, timed to precede Tuesday’s opening of the United Nations climate change summit meeting in New York City, is part of a broader and accelerating initiative.

In recent years, 180 institutions — including philanthropies, religious organizations, pension funds and local governments — as well as hundreds of wealthy individual investors have pledged to sell assets tied to fossil fuel companies from their portfolios and to invest in cleaner alternatives. In all, the groups have pledged to divest assets worth more than $50 billion from portfolios, and the individuals more than $1 billion, according to Arabella Advisors, a firm that consults with philanthropists and investors to use their resources to achieve social goals.

Some say they are taking action to align their assets with their environmental principles. Others want to shame companies that they believe are recklessly contributing to a warming planet. Still others say that the fight to limit climate change will lead to new regulations and disruptive new technologies that will make these companies an increasingly risky investment.

Ultimately, the activist investors say, their actions, like those of the anti-apartheid divestment fights of the 1980s, could help spur international debate, while the shift of investment funds to energy alternatives could lead to solutions to the carbon puzzle.

Among the individual investors joining in the announcement on Monday is Mark Ruffalo, the actor. The news conference will include a videotaped message from Bishop Desmond Tutu, who said that because climate change has a disproportionate impact on the poor, it is “the human rights challenge of our time.”

Just how transparent the various funds and institutions will be about the progress of their asset sales is uncertain.

The family has also engaged in shareholder activism with Exxon Mobil, the largest successor to Standard Oil.

Members have met privately with the company over the years in efforts to get it to moderate its stance on issues pertaining to the environment and climate change. They acknowledged that they have not caused the company to greatly alter its course.

Other unlikely supporters also chimed in. Leonardo DiCaprio was one of them.

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt announced Monday that the firm would sever ties with a controversial conservative group because of its position on climate change.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, a prominent network of conservative state legislators works to roll back laws that promote solar and wind power.

Source: NYT/Bloomberg