The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation’s (UTAM) recent report on responsible investment describes steps to include environmental, social, and governance (ESG) considerations in U of T’s investment decision making. However, the proposed actions are an inadequate remedy to the enormity of climate change.
The “resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice” in the university’s Statement of Institutional Purpose requires us to do more. U of T should act on this issue, as it did with divestment from tobacco and firms associated with apartheid in South Africa.
U of T’s policy on divestment arguably exists because the university recognizes that the activities of some corporations are contrary to U of T’s values. The policy demands that responses to questions about the university’s social responsibility as an investor be based on the concept of “social injury” imposed on consumers, employees, or other persons, and the violation of domestic and international laws that protect the health, safety, and basic freedoms of people around the world.
The divestment brief comprehensively documents the social injury imposed by the fossil fuel industry, including through climate change, as well as the industry’s well-documented efforts to mislead the public and lawmakers, and its violation of Indigenous rights. The ad hoc expert committee selected by President Gertler acknowledged the industry’s contributions to social injury, as did the President’s response to their recommendations. And yet the remedy chosen has little logical connection to the problem identified, and little prospect of mitigating how U of T’s investments are aggravating climate change.
If the administration will only undertake insignificant and incremental action when social injury has been so comprehensively demonstrated, then President Gertler’s actions have rendered the divestment policy essentially meaningless.
The divestment campaign has laid out a compelling ethical and financial rationale for urgent and substantial action, whereas UTAM’s report barely mentions climate change and does not discuss social injury or the conduct of the fossil fuel industry. This contrasts sharply with the ad hoc committee’s conclusion that some fossil fuel companies “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury,” and its recommendation of divestment from firms spreading disinformation or receiving over 10 per cent of their revenue from coal production and burning or non-conventional and aggressive extraction.
Now, UTAM doesn’t even propose screening stocks, but rather “selection and monitoring” of investment managers. It is not convincing that having UTAM review and evaluate various characteristics of its investment managers — or “discuss securities that appear to have material ESG risks,” as the report puts it — will help curb the abuses of the fossil fuel industry or the ways in which it is imposing harm through climate change.
Shareholder activism, also endorsed in the UTAM report, is a similarly inadequate strategy. Asking major coal and oil companies to leave their proven reserves unburned is not a credible response to climate change.
President Gertler himself has acknowledged the seriousness of climate change risks and the fossil fuel industry’s history of misconduct. When describing fossil fuel corporations that are “non-conventional or aggressive extractors and disinformers,” he said, “My expectation is that such investments — properly assessed — would indeed be deemed undesirable from the perspective of ESG-related factors.”
This expectation is not reflected in the U of T administration’s actions. Climate change threatens to devastate low-lying nations like Bangladesh and the Netherlands, and is causing death and suffering in communities around the world.
Moreover, U of T’s complicity in colonial harm caused to Indigenous communities by the fossil fuel industry undermines the university’s commitment to reconciliation. It is not ethically defensible to continue investing in the corporations that work to confuse the public and block political action while their products cause the problem.
The administration has consistently sought to escape responsibility for the consequences of its investments by relying on UTAM’s unwillingness to divest without clear direction from the President and Governing Council. This contrasts with U of T’s action concerning tobacco and apartheid divestment, as well as the leadership of over 100 educational institutions worldwide that have committed to fossil fuel divestment.
President Gertler should revisit his decision not to divest, implement the spirit and letter of the divestment policy, and stop funding an industry that is burning up the future of U of T’s students.
Amelia Rose Khan is Vice President of Toronto350, a group that brings together organizers, activists, and citizens to lead campaigns and actions focused on solving the global climate crisis.
Julia DaSilva is a first-year undergraduate student at Victoria College and co-founder of Leap UofT.
Kristy Bard is a member of United Steel Workers Local 1998’s NextGen Committee, which aims to inspire and educate young members of the United Steelworkers.
Milan Ilnyckyj is a fifth-year PhD student in Political Science and a Junior Fellow at Massey College.
Peter Martin OC, FRSC is a professor in the Canadian Institute for Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Toronto and a Senior Fellow at Massey College.