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Divestment and Beyond panel discusses the climate crisis, fossil fuel divestment at U of T

“It’s time for a renewed push” for divestment, says former President’s Advisory Committee member
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CELENE CZARNOTA/THE VARSITY
CELENE CZARNOTA/THE VARSITY

Divestment and Beyond, a coalition of students, faculty, and staff at the university who support fossil fuel divestment, held a virtual panel discussion on October 15 to discuss divestment and climate at U of T, with speakers from various areas of the university.

Global climate crisis

Donna Ashamock, an educator and community organizer, began the panel by speaking on the importance of Indigenous voices in the climate movement, noting that they are “often left out of decision-making tables that affect [climate crisis] policies.” She added that, since U of T is one of the largest institutions in Canada and the biggest landowner in Toronto, any action that the university takes to address the climate crisis will have an even greater impact.

Nadège Compaoré, who will become an assistant professor of political science at UTM in July 2021, spoke broadly about the climate crisis and climate justice, and situated U of T within the greater context. “What I want to do is to ask us to seriously consider [whether] this collective work between students and faculty at U of T can be understood as part of the evolution of current global efforts for climate justice,” she said.

Compaoré talked about how companies and governance bodies use the language of principles such as corporate social responsibility, and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors to appease critics while maintaining the status quo. The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), which manages U of T’s investments, uses ESG factors in its work.

Divestment at the university level

Matthew Hoffman, a political science professor who served on the President’s Advisory Committee (PAC) on Divestment from Fossil Fuels, gave an overview of the history of the divestment movement at U of T.

The PAC recommended targeted divestment based on whether firms were spreading misinformation about the climate crisis or were particularly bad emissions offenders. Hoffman said that the PAC, after consultation with stakeholders, found that divestment can still be in line with the university’s legal fiduciary duty.

He concluded by saying that he believes that it is time to get the divestment movement going again. “The radical option right now is business as usual,” said Hoffman. “The sensible option is to work toward the kind of massive transformation and just transition that we need — and to do so quickly.”

Professor Scott Prudham criticized UTAM’s goal of reducing carbon intensity — which measures emissions per amount invested — by 40 per cent by 2030 instead of committing to a total reduction of carbon emissions. This means UTAM can meet its goal and still have more total emissions tied to investments than in 2017.

“This talk of intensity is a smokescreen,” said Prudham. “We live in a world in which only absolute reductions in greenhouse gas emissions matter.”

Staff and union concerns

Kristy Bard, a grievance officer for United Steel Workers Local 1998 (USW 1998) — the union that represents administrative and technical workers — spoke about the union’s efforts to navigate the climate crisis. She said that some workers may be hesitant to support divestment or a just transition if they worry that they will lose their jobs.

“I can’t stress enough the important role that education plays in mobilizing union members to get behind divestment and to push the union leadership to take more drastic measures, such as calling for a general strike,” said Bard.

Justin Holloway, a steward for USW 1998, added that “the linkage between worker health and safety and [the climate crisis] must be better understood by workers and by everyone,” explaining that the climate crisis poses a direct health threat to everyone.