A name synonymous with oil wealth for more than a century is now abandoning it.

John D. Rockefeller built a vast fortune with Standard Oil, but his heirs are turning away from fossil fuels because of their role in climate change.

The Rockefeller heirs will divest fossil-fuel stocks from their $860 million philanthropic organization, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, according to a recent report from The New York Times.

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The announcement was timed to coincide with the United Nations climate-change summit held in New York earlier this week, which was accompanied by a massive environmentalist demonstration.

The organization will become one of the largest--and certainly one of the most high-profile--to join the divestment movement that seeks curtail investment in companies that contribute to global warming.

Two BNSF locomotives hauling coal trains meet near Wichita Falls, Texas

Two BNSF locomotives hauling coal trains meet near Wichita Falls, Texas

Started a couple of years ago on college campuses, the divestment movement encompasses an estimated 180 institutions--including philanthropies, religious organizations, and pension funds--as well as hundreds of individual investors.

All of them have pledged to sell assets that could be viewed as contributing to climate change or other geopolitical issues.

The Rockefellers decided to divest for reasons both ethical and economic.

In addition to concerns about global warming, Steven Rockefeller--son of vice president Nelson A. Rockefeller and a trustee of the fund--said companies could find themselves with larger stockpiles of fuel that they won't be able to burn.

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That may not happen for a while, though, and in the meantime divestment will be more about declaring principles than toppling oil companies.

Given the staggering amounts of cash available to large oil companies, it's unlikely that this relatively small group will be able to affect them.

Some supporters of divestment simply want to align their financial holdings with their environmental principles, while others believe the publicity around divestment could shame companies into policy changes--similar to divestment in companies that supported South Africa's apartheid regime a generation ago.

wind farm

wind farm

Despite the family name, recent generations of Rockefellers have been firmly committed to environmentalism.

The family recently divested from coal and tar sands, and plans to increase its investment in renewable energy.

Family members have also met privately with officials from Exxon Mobile--the largest successor to Standard Oil--to encourage more environmentally-friendly policies, although this hasn't had a significant affect.

The Rockefellers even tried to spur renewable energy in the 1980s with a $2 million direct investment, which proved to be somewhat ahead of its time.


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