Pressure is mounting for U of T to divest from its holdings in fossil fuel companies. A local activism group called Toronto350, as well as many other prominent student groups, are calling on the university to pull all its direct stock holdings from fossil fuel companies. Activists say that the fossil fuel companies’ harmful environmental and social impacts give the university an ethical obligation to divest.
“The university is meant to make the future better for students. While we’re burning fossil fuels, we’re changing the climate, and guaranteeing a worse future for those students. Every student will be affected by climate change,” said Stuart Basden, president of Toronto350.
U of T’s two largest single-company holdings, listed by The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) in March 2012, are $9.8 million in Royal Dutch Shell PLC, and $7.8 million in BP PLC. Also listed was a $5.8 million investment in Rio Tinto PLC, a mining company with large fossil fuel reserves. UTAM does not list all investment quantities.
U of T president Meric Gertler declined to comment on whether he thinks investing in fossil fuel companies is ethical, or on how he plans to address the concerns of student groups: “It would not be appropriate for me as president to express a view or position on the specific issues pertaining to the fossil fuels divestment debate until the process outlined in the university’s policy has been allowed to run its course,” he said.
In an extensive brief called “The Fossil Fuel Industry and the Case for Divestment,” Toronto350 argues that a massive redirection of investment from fossil fuel energy sources will help curtail the serious environmental effects of global warming. U of T’s divestment, they argue, would play an important role in leading this move.
The brief details the scientific evidence for the role of fossil fuel energy sources in climate change. Toronto350 contends that the fossil fuel companies’ business plans are out of touch with the disastrous environmental consequences of their activities. The brief also argues that divestment is in line with U of T’s divestment policy and Statement of Institutional Purpose, which includes “a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.”
“If future generations are to have equal opportunities, they cannot inherit a planet that has been impoverished by uncontrollable climate change,” reads the brief.
Further, Toronto350 argues that divestment would be a financially feasible, and possibly beneficial, move for U of T. They argue that much of the value of fossil fuel companies is illusory, since the increasing severity of climate change will negatively affect their value. Toronto350 argues that attractive alternatives to U of T’s holdings in fossil fuel companies exist, including the renewable energy sector.
Toronto350 was founded in June 2012. Since then, its divestment campaign has garnered the support of many prominent student groups, including the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU), the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), the University of Toronto Environmental Action (UTEA), the Victoria University Students’ Administrative Council, Trinity College Meeting (TCM), and the Muslim Students’ Association. Thirty-eight faculty members have also endorsed the brief. Other prominent supporters include environmental activist and academic David Suzuki, former Toronto mayor David Miller, and American Indian environmental activist Winona Laduke.
“The UTSU believes that our university should operate based on ethical guidelines. As a university, we have a lot of pull as far as the priorities of our government. The fossil fuel divestment debate is similar to when students successfully mobilized to get the university to divest from companies operating in apartheid South Africa,” said Munib Sajjad, president of the UTSU.
On March 6, Dimitri Lascaris — a U of T law alumnus who was named one of the 25 most influential lawyers in Canada in 2012 — will formally present the divestment brief to U of T president Meric Gertler, on behalf of Toronto350. Toronto350 will ask U of T to declare its intention to divest from fossil fuel companies, and immediately stop making new investments in the industry. They will ask the university to divest from Royal Dutch Shell within one year of receiving the brief, and divest all its direct stock holdings from 200 other companies with large fossil fuel reserves within five years of receiving the brief.
Toronto350 likens the ethical and legal basis of their proposed divestment plan to U of T’s past decisions to divest from tobacco companies and companies operating in apartheid South Africa. They argued that in these situations, although there was no official legislation prohibiting the activities of these companies, U of T took a stance based on the companies’ socially injurious activities. “Although no Canadian legislation currently exists limiting the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which directly causes climate change, U of T should act in response to the strengthening consensus among governments, scientific organizations, and financial institutions,” reads the brief.
The UTEA has collaborated with Toronto350 on the divestment campaign throughout the year. “Denying climate change is like arguing for a flat earth right now. The scientific community is in agreement on this issue,” said Ben Donato-Woodger, head of the UTEA. “Young people are losing out tremendously because of the actions of those in power right now, and it is a structural, systematic injustice against young people to have people who won’t be paying the price make decisions that will harm the next generation,” he said. “Failing to divest would be a clear act of not caring about their students.”
Sarah Levy, vice-president of the Trinity College Environmental Society, noted that the motion to endorse divestment from fossil fuels passed by a narrow margin in the TCM. Levy said that those who voted against the motion felt that a student government should not endorse a political issue. “I believe that climate change is not an inherently political issue. It’s often politicized, but what people need to recognize is that it’s a fact, it’s something that’s going on in our environment. Similarly to when we divested from tobacco companies 30 years ago, it concerns something that poses a direct threat to people,” she said.
Toronto350 is part of a larger organization, called 350.org, founded in 2008. 350.org now has a global network of environmental activism groups in more than 188 countries. “All of our work leverages people power to dismantle the influence and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry, and to develop people-centric solutions to the climate crisis,” reads a statement on their website. Nine colleges and universities in the United States have committed to divesting from fossil fuels.
Michael Kurts, U of T’s assistant vice-president, strategic communications & marketing, said that the president will be in a position to appoint an ad hoc committee upon receiving the divestment brief and accompanying attestations. “The committee may seek additional information and advice from the UTAM and others before arriving at any list of recommendations in response to the brief,” he said.
Correction Tuesday March 4 2014: Thirty-eight faculty members have endorsed Toronto350’s brief, not 13 member as was previously stated.
Clarification Monday March 10 2014: Toronto350 originally claimed to have been endorsed by the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union. This is not the case, this article has been updated to reflect this fact.