Fossil fuel divestment: a story of inaction

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a special report titled “Global Warming of 1.5 Degrees Celsius.” It spells out apocalyptic consequences for humanity unless we radically change our behaviour on a systemic and individual level within the next dozen years. 

On average, the world’s surface temperature is one degree warmer than it was before the Industrial Revolution. This is because of human activities. The report emphasizes the need to stay below 1.5 degrees of warming in order to prevent the worst environmental and socioeconomic impacts of climate change. Should we surpass that level of warming, the sea level will rise more rapidly, more species will become endangered and extinct, and food and water insecurity will increase further. 

In order to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions would need to decline by 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050. If we want to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius, emissions must decline by 20 per cent by 2030 and reach net zero around 2075. Alarmingly, at our current rate, the report states that we are on track to hit 1.5 degrees of warming sometime between 2030 and 2052. 

Without political will from international leaders and corporate regulations, it is unlikely that we will meet the emissions reduction levels necessary to prevent some of the most catastrophic repercussions of climate change. Even so, we should remain optimistic and idealistic. Throughout history, political and social revolutions have seemed impossible at worst or pessimistic at best. Not very long ago, it seemed incredibly difficult to tackle the issue of acid rain or to achieve an international ban on ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons. When you think of the year 2050, it may seem too soon for the massive systemic shifts needed to effectively decelerate global warming, but not when you consider how quickly technology has advanced.

Simply put, politicians will not make climate action a part of their platform unless they see their constituents demanding it. Climate change consistently ranks low on the list of concerns put forth by potential voters, with issues such as job creation, the economy, and health care beating it out. Collectively, we need to understand that climate action is inherently connected to these other pressing social issues. Climate action will create millions of jobs in the renewable energy and related sectors. Energy efficiency will save people more money. Less pollution in the atmosphere will save lives by preventing diseases.
It’s going to take innovation and ingenuity to develop a sustainable domestic and global economy. The capitalist system runs on edacity and efficiency, and climate change presents a massively untapped source of economic, industrial and infrastructural development. We need to capitalize on climate change. The opportunity cost is simply too high if we don’t.

The role of universities

Discussion about climate change and the lack of reaction to warnings often centre around governments and Big Oil: how reticent they are to act and how it’s never enough when they do. Universities are often left out of this debate. A surprise, considering how much money from university investment funds helps prop up the fossil fuel industry. 

In 2017, the total value of divestments from the industry by universities around the world exceeded $136 billion, and that’s ignoring the many institutions that have refused or ignored calls for divestment. All the criticisms that are levelled at philanthropic institutes, governments, and the fossil fuel industry apply equally to universities. 

As students, we are uniquely poised to create change here, to pressure administrations to act. It matters. It will soon be too late. 

Figures from around the world

Let’s break down the numbers. Of that $136 billion, only 0.1 per cent is from Canadian universities. If that wasn’t shameful enough, it becomes even worse when you look closer. 

Concordia University is one of the brave few who have pledged to divest in the country — kind of. In 2014, they established a $5 million fund for sustainable investments, which some hoped might prompt the university to divest from its $12 million or so in the fossil fuel industry. Four years later, little else has changed. It’s good public relations, but it’s not good environmentalism.

For a better example of what real divestment looks like, we can turn to Université Laval. Last year, it became the first Canadian school to commit to full, actionable, and effective divestment across all their financial assets. They aren’t alone. 

Across the Atlantic, Scottish students have a lot to be proud of, as the University of Glasgow’s full divestment pledge wiped roughly $31 million from Big Oil companies. Close by, the University of Edinburgh has also cleaned up its act this year, after a partial divestment in 2015. In fact, UK universities and colleges account for almost half of the divestment pledges. 

So what are they doing that we aren’t? Climate change is an issue that affects everyone regardless of where you live — that’s what makes it a crisis for the future of humanity — but not everyone seems to want to do anything about it.

Squarely in that camp are some of the biggest names with the biggest account balances, the ones who are needed to really start a powerful domino-effect of divestment. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology refuses to budge. Harvard University nervously pauses investments but won’t scale back. Scientists at the University of British Columbia work to educate the public on the real dangers that climate change proposes, all the while university bureaucrats place financial returns over the planet’s wellbeing. And of course, there’s U of T.

Divestment at U of T

The divestment campaign at U of T began to gain momentum in 2014, when UofT350, our chapter of the international divestment organization, presented the university with a detailed petition asking it to take a hard look at what it was investing in. Following this, President Meric Gertler established an Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels, which later produced its own report suggesting that the university take a balanced approach to divestment. 

UofT350 argued that U of T should break away from firms who blatantly disregard the environment in their activities, a strategy that an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson called the “Toronto Principle,” one that other institutions such as Harvard ought to adapt. High praise, but today it rings hollow.

In 2016, Gertler declined the Committee’s suggestions, opting instead for a “firm-by-firm” approach to assessing whether an investment might be environmentally unsound. This practical-sounding, fiscally responsible strategy has given the university the leeway to act without acting.

There isn’t room for greed, for pussyfooting in the face of an existential threat so large that our short-term-risk-assessing brains cannot process it properly. Moving away from fossil fuels is critical, investing in sustainable industries so they can grow is necessary, and universities are uniquely poised to do both. Why the apathy?

The late William Bowen, former president of Princeton University, said of divestment campaigns: “To abstain is both a legitimate and appropriate action when the issue is not central to an institution’s educational mission.” 

There is a school of thought that says that an education is not merely for oneself, but for the society one lives in. Instruction of a student, then, ought to look beyond the campus walls as well. How can any university, not just U of T, justify its reputation and academic standing if it does not take an issue like climate change at face value? There is simply no way the two can coexist. Our duty as students, scholars, teachers, and just plain human beings is clear: we must halt fossil fuel emissions before it’s too late.