In October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, raising serious concerns about the future habitability of our planet. The release of this report and the subsequent attention it received in the media and among world leaders has galvanized public awareness of anthropogenic climate change, and focused attention on the main culprits — fossil fuel companies.
The National Climate Assessment, a report published by 13 US federal agencies, concluded that the increasing severity of hurricanes and other weather events could cost the US hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century. On top of that, this year’s United Nations climate change conference, COP24, starts this Monday, December 3, with countries coming together to show how they plan to adhere to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change.
The serious and sudden panic about climate change is warranted. It is not an exaggeration to say that climate change is an existential threat to our species and our planet.
U of T students are directly linked to the problem: our tuition is invested in fossil fuel companies.
In 2012, UofT350 was established to lobby the university to divest funds from those companies. Thanks to the activism of this group, in cooperation with students and faculty, the Governing Council convened an ad hoc committee to determine whether the university should divest.
In 2015, the committee returned a pro-divestment verdict. UofT350 had argued that the university could present itself as a leader among other Canadian universities and in the broader movement to fight climate change.
Instead, President Meric Gertler rejected the committee’s recommendation, penning a report titled “Beyond Divestment: Taking Decisive Action on Climate Change.” The actions the university proposed in that report pale in comparison to the contribution that divestment would’ve made.
When I participated in rallies for the UofT350 campaign, I was heartened by the dedication of those who showed up, but disappointed that more did not share that commitment. In an institution of over 90,000 students, a rally of a couple hundred makes climate activism on campus seem insignificant.
After all, if only a small minority of students show up for a protest, the university might feel justified in not listening. As it turns out, it didn’t matter that the university didn’t listen; the larger student body didn’t even know that UofT350 lost its campaign.
In the words of Andrea Budgey, Chaplain of Trinity College and climate activist, U of T is “obliged to a lot of corporate supporters on a lot of fronts and I think that often hampers movement.” The university is a conservative institution. It doesn’t like change.
That much is evident from the campaign to get the university to divest from apartheid South Africa decades ago. U of T held onto its investments there until it was the last university in Canada to divest. We as students have to hold the university to account for its almost obscene reluctance to change its ways.
A kind of consolation prize
Nonetheless, the university did some good when it created a committee to implement the initiatives it set down in its report.
I spoke to Professor John Robinson, the Presidential Advisor on Environment, Climate Change, and Sustainability. One of these initiatives is to undertake six building projects across U of T to create “test beds” of sustainability, Robinson said. “We are going to treat each of them as a living lab,” he said, in order to “figure out how students can get involved in studying, or contributing to the retrofit.”
Another goal of the committee is to implement curricular changes incentivizing involvement in sustainability groups, and enrolling in certain courses, with tiered roles such as “sustainability citizen,” “sustainability scholar,” and “sustainability leader,” based off of a student’s involvement in environmental initiatives on campus.
U of T made concessions to activists by creating initiatives that distracted from its involvement with companies that actively contribute to climate change. While increased funding for climate research seems like a good thing, it fosters complacency about the university’s role in climate activism, and precludes real action.
Nonetheless, the programs the university seeks to introduce will likely increase student awareness and engagement with sustainability issues.
Speaking to Robinson, it was evident that these projects were very much in their beginning stages. It may take years before the report’s initiatives are fully implemented.
Cash for carbon
In July of this year, the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) published its first Carbon Footprint Report. It estimates that, as of September 2017, U of T’s investments are responsible for around 570,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions, mostly in Asian industries.
China is responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s emissions, and a large portion of that is through coal. The report suggests that U of T is investing in the world’s worst emitters, a stark contrast to its rhetoric about promoting green technologies.
For reference, U of T’s entire downtown campus produced 92,000 tonnes of greenhouse gases in 2015. This discrepancy may be why the administration is so willing to make changes on campus, rather than in its investments. The initiatives laid out in “Beyond Divestment” cost the university very little, and help much less than divestment.
UTAM currently manages almost $10 billion, and the money explicitly allotted to sustainable practices by the president’s report totals $3.25 million. Robinson’s committee has good intentions, but the university itself has been undoubtedly more cynical in terms of how it advertised its decision.
The “Beyond Divestment” report states, “We have embraced the spirit and followed the logic of the [ad hoc] Committee’s recommendations, while taking what we believe to be a broader — and ultimately, even more impactful — approach to the question of investment and fossil fuels.”
That approach is to evaluate the worthiness of investments based on environmental, social, and governance factors. While this seems an appealing, if vague, concept, it gives the university a get-out-of-jail-free card. Gertler’s report states that this approach is “consistent with the Committee’s recommendation in favour of… divestment.”
The Carbon Footprint Report indicates that this isn’t quite true. “It may take many years before conclusions can be drawn” from the initial carbon emissions estimates. If that’s the case, U of T could be far from divestment.
The climate of climate activism
In the wake of Gertler’s 2016 report, UofT350 encouraged alumni not to donate to the university, as a protest of the President’s decision. UofT350 then fizzled out, with its last Facebook update in October of the same year. Since then, climate activism on campus has been nearly nonexistent.
The only comparable movement is LeapUofT, founded in the fall of 2016. It bases itself on the principles of the Leap Manifesto, a Canada-wide movement that advocates for “a Canada based on caring for each other and the planet, moving swiftly to a post-carbon future, upholding Indigenous rights, and pursuing economic justice for all.”
LeapUofT lobbies for divestment from fossil fuel companies at the university’s three federated colleges: the University of St. Michael’s College, the University of Trinity College, and Victoria University. Clement Cheng, a member of the organization, spoke about what the group hopes to achieve through its advocacy. “Hopefully, one or all three of these colleges… can demonstrate true leadership on climate change and that they actually are looking out for the students.”
So far, LeapUofT hasn’t attracted as much student participation as UofT350 did, partly because it isn’t a branch of the multinational climate advocacy group that is 350.org. LeapUofT faces challenges in its lack of exposure and the fact that its lobbying efforts are still in their infancy.
LeapUofT leader Julia DaSilva reflected, “We’re still growing as a campaign, so there are a lot of students who aren’t aware of our existence, but considering where we were a year ago… I think we’ve done pretty well.”
Student activists have limited their ambitions considerably since “Beyond Divestment,” focusing on sustainable practices within their own colleges. Some activists on campus think only in terms of stopping things from getting worse. This is an unhelpful approach to climate activism. It is imperative for activists to push institutions towards tangible change, rather than letting them get the better of us.
On divestment, Robinson noted, “I think it’s inevitable, ultimately, the whole issue is… time is passing. The consequences are getting closer.” The university’s efforts pursuant to its 2016 initiatives are still largely unknown to the student community, and sustainability groups consequently have low participation.
The IPCC report is a golden opportunity for the 66 student groups identified by Robinson’s committee to reach out to students — to become agents of change, effectively represent students, and challenge the university’s reticence on climate change. After all, as Robinson said, “Students often don’t realize how much influence they have on the university.” The opportunity has passed for U of T and its administration to be leaders in the fight against climate change. Now leadership must come from the students.
There are inherent problems with advocating for widespread public engagement with climate change. I have the privilege of writing this article and dedicating some of my time to climate activism. Many students do not have that luxury, whether it is because of the nature of their program, personal life, involvement in other groups, or employment.
But if you have a moment to spare, stand with climate activists and let them know they’re not alone. As DaSilva stated clearly, “We have a moral obligation… to challenge injustice, and the climate crisis is fundamentally a justice issue.”
Our university has a responsibility to ensure the welfare of its students. Investing in fossil fuels and polluting our environment is an abdication of that responsibility.
William Cuddy is a fifth-year Political Science and History student at Victoria College.