In the wake of the historic $250 million donation to the U of T Faculty of Medicine by the Temerty family, a petition was published on October 19 by a group of Canadian physicians calling for the Faculty of Medicine to keep funds from the donation away from the fossil fuel industry. 

The letter, addressed to the dean of the faculty, Trevor Young, not only calls for the use of the donation funds for investment in community projects, but also calls for divestment of any funds supporting the fossil fuel industry and committing to reallocating those funds by the year 2025.

The $250 million donation more than doubled the amount of revenue from donations that U of T received in the 2018–2019 school year and is equivalent to 27 per cent of all that U of T spent on medical research from April 2018 to March 2019.

“We recognize that the Temerty family’s gift has transformative potential for the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine,” the letter reads, also noting that the faculty “has a tremendous opportunity to ensure that this historic contribution is also used to improve the health and well-being of those beyond the walls of the University and generations in to the future.”

Doctors from the Temerty Faculty of Medicine call for divestment 

Dr. Antonia Sappong, family physician and member of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), and Dr. Colin Sue-Chue-Lam, resident physician at U of T and also a member of CAPE, were two of the co-authors of the petition, which has received over 100 signatures from U of T faculty physicians, researchers, medical alumni, medical trainees, and other health workers. 

Sappong and Sue-Chue-Lam note that, as physicians, they have sworn an oath to do no harm, which they believe includes not harming the Earth. “Asking for divestment is a small way that we can call on our institutions to invest in a healthy, and livable future for all,” they wrote in an email to The Varsity.

Sappong and Sue-Chue-Lam continued, “We, as physicians, recognize that we have a limited amount of time left to act to reduce the worst impacts of the climate crisis.” They also added that “the only way this shift is going to happen is if we make it socially unacceptable for individuals and institutions to continue to invest in the fossil fuel industry.”

Lack of transparency in investment holdings

In an interview with The Varsity, Paul Downes, a professor in the English department at U of T and a member of Divestment and Beyond, and Evelyn Austin, a member and coordinator at environmental group Leap U of T, stressed the need for transparency when it comes to U of T’s investment portfolio, specifically in reference to the massive donation from the Temertys. 

“We want far more transparency about where, which companies, and which sectors are being invested in to generate these returns that then fund the initiatives,” said Downes, referring to initiatives outlined by U of T after receiving the Temerty donation.

The issue, Downes and Austin agreed, is that U of T hires the U of T Asset Management Corporation (UTAM) to handle investments, and UTAM, in turn, hires individual investment managers. The result is what Downes calls a “manager of managers approach,” in which the individual investment managers don’t report exactly what they have invested in to UTAM. 

In turn, Downes noted, UTAM doesn’t report to the U of T administration, so U of T can’t report to the community. “As far as I’m concerned, they could be hiding all sorts of horrible investments from us as long as they’re not being transparent about exactly where the money is being invested,” Downes said.

UTAM has committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its investment portfolios by 40 per cent by 2030. However, carbon intensity only measures the emissions per dollar spent, not total emissions, which many U of T community members have criticized. U of T also plans to reduce its total emissions by 37 per cent by 2030.

Social and financial harm of investing in the fossil fuel industry

Another issue that the letter addresses is the rights of Indigenous peoples. Austin believes that investing in fossil fuel extraction companies is akin to supporting the violation of the rights of Indigenous peoples and even violence against them. 

Austin also noted that extraction companies have a history of racism that leads to violence against Indigenous women. 

Additionally, Downes noted that “increasingly, investment managers are realizing that fossil fuels are not a good long-term investment,” highlighting that, besides the impacts on the environment, investments in fossil fuels also carry a financial risk

He said that the university should take note of the growing global recognition of the long-term risks of fossil fuel investments. “A university has to think about the long term,” Downes said. “We’re not just trying to make a quick profit.”

Impact on the future

Sappong and Sue-Chue-Lam believe that the climate crisis is urgent, and while they see that a lot of critical changes have to be made, they think that the petition is a small step that could have a big impact in the long run. 

They wrote, “This petition sends a signal to the public and to decision-makers at our institutions that, as healthcare professionals, we recognize the imminent threat of the climate crisis to human health, that we recognize that urgent action is needed to move away from fossil-fuels and other exploitative systems, and that we are committed to ensuring that our own institutions are not harming current and future generations.”