Professor Steven Running, whose work on climate change shared in a Nobel Peace Prize, said he believes the University of Montana Foundation should pull its investments from fossil fuels, starting with coal.
"I would absolutely tell our foundation that they should be on a strategic path to pulling out of coal investments as soon as they can," Running said Tuesday. "And then, over a little longer term, oil and gas investments.
"But I realize that you can't do that overnight, and without sometimes taking terrible financial losses. So you need to have first a strategy of what you want to do."
He suggested UM divest from coal within two years, but he also said coal stocks on his radar have dropped by 90 percent in the past couple years.
"Probably, if you still have coal stock, it's too late. You've already taken it on the nose," Running said.
The professor also said he sympathizes with President Royce Engstrom because the issue is a challenging one "where you start walking the tightrope from concept to reality."
The reality Running presents when he gives talks about climate change is that coal is the source for the vast majority of global emissions form fossil fuels – 42 percent in 2014, according to the Global Carbon Project (see slide from Running's presentation). It notes oil, gas, cement and flaring make up the rest.
In 2007, the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to two recipients, Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Running was one of the IPCC authors lauded for their "efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change."
Last spring, UM students voted by an 80 percent margin to approve a referendum calling on the UM Foundation to divest from fossil fuels, but in September, the foundation's board of trustees unanimously rejected divestment.
Melissa Wilson, vice president for marketing and communications, said trustees remain committed to providing the "best possible returns" for UM, and they have not received any direct communication from Running. Last year, the foundation's endowment was at $172.8 million, and 8 percent to 10 percent was invested in "energy."
"The UM Foundation will maintain its current investment strategy to fulfill the mission of maximizing returns for the University, allowing for optimal resources for students, faculty and staff," Wilson noted in an email Tuesday.
On campus, advocates of divesting aren't giving up despite the board's vote. Reinvest Montana is a campus group dedicated to global climate justice and asserting its right in the Montana Constitution to a clean and healthy environment.
Reinvest Montana has an in-depth divestment proposal called "The Triple Bottom Line: People, Planet and Profit at the University of Montana." In it, the group lauds Professor Running of the College of Forestry and Conservation as well as programs at UM that address climate change.
"In line with a history of environmental leadership, UM needs to lead, not follow, in the worldwide movement for fossil fuel divestment," the proposal said.
On Tuesday, Jess Moore and Simon Dykstra, co-presidents of Reinvest, said they strongly agree with timeline Running suggested. They said the group has been asking the foundation to "immediately commit to a five-year" deadline for full divestment.
"Mack Clapp, the chairman of investments, is not exercising fiduciary responsibility by refusing to divest," Moore and Dykstra said in a statement.
"The foundation has not produced a single piece of evidence that divestment would hurt returns in the short term, and we know that divestment is essential for the long-term. We've also worked with a financial adviser to provide (foundation trustees) with a fossil-free portfolio that outperformed the UM portfolio, even before gas and oil began their decline."
The foundation's Wilson said earlier the research the foundation's trustees did showed divestment would not be fiscally prudent. She also said analysts can package numbers to show the results they want to see.
In the past two or three years, the financial sector has started pulling away from coal companies, and their stock values are collapsing and many are in bankruptcy, Running said.
"We've turned a very big corner in the financial sector sizing up the future of coal first and fossil fuels more generally and realizing that if anybody is serious about stabilizing climate, that's where you've got to start," Running said. "And if you're not serious, you'd better just admit it up front. You can't have it both ways."
One reason he and others point to coal first is it's the dirtiest, he said. On the other hand, coal mainly goes toward producing electrical power, and five or six different alternatives exist, he said, (unlike jet fuel, which has no substitute yet).
The shift in the economy is critical, he said, and so is help for people who work in the industry and need support making the transition.
"They are definitely taking the brunt of this, and so I feel badly for the industry workers at Colstrip," Running said.
Society has made big economic transitions before, though, and it can do so this time while paying attention to industry employees.
"That's an important thing to have up front, too. But that doesn't negate the fact that stopping burning coal is the first thing humanity needs to do worldwide, including us right here," Running said.