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Op-ed: U of T, don’t leave us stranded

The university’s toxic investments warrant a just transition into fossil fuel divestment
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FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY
FIONA TUNG/THE VARSITY

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing widespread economic disruption, and the University of Toronto will not escape the budgetary impact. As such, we at Divestment and Beyond — a coalition of students, faculty, and staff working toward climate justice at U of T — believe the university would be much better off had U of T President Meric Gertler taken the advice of his own committee back in March 2016 and at least partially divested from fossil fuels. 

An Earth Day op-ed published in The Guardian noted how Harvard University’s current austerity is due in part to the estimated 700 million USD that the institution may have lost as a result of its fossil fuel investments. How much has U of T lost so far?

In the last few weeks, the University of Guelph and Oxford University have become the latest in a growing list of institutions to begin divesting from fossil fuel holdings. How far behind will U of T fall before it joins these universities and cuts its ties with this unsustainable and volatile industry? 

Proponents of fossil fuel divestment have long warned that these investments are destined to become extremely costly stranded assets. Who suffers most when the endowment and pension funds lose massive amounts of money as a result of these unethical investment decisions? If we are to continue making Harvard’s mistakes then the answer is: primarily staff and students.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff are being impacted by layoffs, hiring freezes, and depressed wages and benefits, while students could suffer from increased class sizes, increased tuition fees, and mounting debt, as they did in the wake of the 2008 crisis.

Instead of continuing to invest in fossil fuels — which has and will no doubt continue to bankrupt our futures and deepen climate change’s uneven impact on Indigenous peoples and racialized communities — we insist that the university invest in a sustainable future for its own faculty, staff, and students. The university and surrounding communities require a just transition away from fossil fuels and toward sustainable investment, with a higher prioritization of the well-being of its members. Sustainable efforts and personal well-being are inseparable, as one informs the other. 

This is why Divestment and Beyond and over 1,100 supporters are calling on the university to commit to fossil fuel divestment — and more — while others have also called for U of T to keep staff whole by supporting them with pay continuity through this pandemic. You can find and sign both our climate petition and staff letter here

Since we, the students, faculty, and staff are the first to suffer the negative impacts of these detrimental holdings, we must lead the charge in demanding that U of T be held accountable for its ruinous investment decisions if we are indeed facing a budgetary crisis like Harvard.

The administration might not have been able to predict the pandemic, but those in charge of U of T’s investments were advised by the President’s Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels that fossil fuel investments would lead to financial risk as well as social injury. 

Within our group are members of the initial advisory committee and those who advocated for change through Toronto350. Climate activists on campus alerted the university to the negative repercussions of investing in fossil fuels as early as 2014. We warned them. And we will continue to sound this alarm until we see meaningful action.

Signed,

Evelyn Austin, Kristy Bard, Carmen Bezner Kerr, Deborah Cowen, Matthew Hoffman, Justin Holloway, Kate Neville, Scott Prudham, Gavin Smith

Divestment and Beyond is a coalition of faculty, students, and staff that is dedicated to fossil fuel divestment and aims to achieve climate justice at the University of Toronto by encouraging U of T administration and working with the U of T community.

Editor’s Note (May 29, 2:51 pm): This article has been updated to include the authors’ commentary on the impact of climate change on Indigenous peoples and racialized communities.