Op-ed: President Gertler’s retreat from responsibility

President Gertler and UTAM’s choices subvert U of T’s divestment policy

Op-ed: President Gertler’s retreat from responsibility

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.

U of T’s biggest stories of 2016

The Varsity looks back at events that made headlines this past year

U of T’s biggest stories of 2016
Divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Fossil fuel divestment report recommendations rejected

In February, U of T President Meric Gertler rejected recommendations from the Presidential Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels for the university to divest from companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” The decision came after three years of student protests calling for U of T to take a stronger leadership role in mitigating the effect of climate change, with student-led environmental advocacy group UofT350 at the forefront of the cause.

In the report detailing his decision, Gertler moved for the university to take a “firm-by-firm” approach to divestment as opposed to a blanket divestment approach. His method proposed making decisions based on environmental, social, and governance-based factors (ESG), the advantage being that UofT could reconcile its fiduciary responsibilities with climate action.

UofT350 expressed disappointment over Gertler’s decision, saying that his rejection of divestment “totally ignores the urgent need to act on climate change, suggesting that tactics like ESG, shareholder activism and carbon disclosure are sufficient to encourage rapid societal shifts to carbon free economies.” The group engaged in several protests against Gertler’s decision, including one at the 2016 Cressy Awards Ceremony, in which UofT350 members dropped banners criticizing the university’s inaction.

— Josie Kao


NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Food Services at UTSG taken over by university 

U of T announced in late January that the university would not be renewing its contract with Aramark, UTSG’s food services provider, and announced that it would take control of these services starting in August.

Employment under new management was offered to all UTSG Aramark employees, although UNITE HERE Local 75, the union representing Aramark employees on campus, cited concerns regarding job security, seniority, wages, and a 90-day probationary period after their re-hiring.

These concerns sparked protests on campus; food service employees, their friends and family, other unionized workers, and students participated. UNITE HERE Local 75 also organized a seven-day hunger strike, which took place during the June convocation. Seven people participated in this hunger strike, including two UTSG food services employees; food service workers employed elsewhere; and UNITE HERE international organizing director, David Saunders.

Nearly all of the 250 food service employees were re-hired by U of T  and are now represented by CUPE 3261. An increase in hourly wages was also offered to the former Aramark employees. Under the contract with the university, workers receive $20.29 per hour  up from the $12.00 to $12.80 most workers were paid while employed by Aramark. Additionally, their employment with the university includes health plans, vacation time, and a tuition waiver for the employees and their dependents.

— Shanna Hunter


NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

Canadian Federation of Students faced criticism from U of T

The Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization that includes over 80 student unions from across the country, was the subject of a report released by the University of Toronto Students’ Union’s (UTSU) ad-hoc CFS committee.

The report detailed the relationship between the union and the federation and noted several concerns, including the unavailability of documents to the public, the powers granted to un-elected staff, and an “unnecessarily burdensome” process to leave the CFS.

The University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) unsuccessfully attempted to deferederate and remains a member of the CFS, after a legal decision was reached in July, despite the fact that 66 per cent of students who voted in the referendum of 2014 voted to leave the federation. The referendum was seven votes short of quorum.

A UTSG campaign, called You Decide UofT, was also launched to petition for a referendum on UTSU Local 98’s membership in the CFS. You Decide UofT has claimed impartiality on the question of defederation, but believes “students should have the opportunity to decide if they want to continue to be in the CFS.”

In September, UTSU was among ten signatories of an open letter to the CFS, which cited concerns such as a lack of transparency, excessive powers possessed by federation staff, a “closed” and “exclusive” tone set at general meetings, and an overly complicated process to leave the CFS. The federation’s chairperson, Bilan Arte, later responded, saying she would “ensure their concerns are addressed” and stated that she planned to follow up with each of the ten signatories.

 The CFS National Executive has since committed to making documents, such as financial statements, available online in hope of increasing transparency. Additionally, a motion to lower the signature threshold needed on petitions to trigger defederation referendums was approved at the CFS National General Meeting, which took place from November 18–21.

 — Shanna Hunter


PHOTO COURTESY OF SYED ISHTIAQUE AHMED

PHOTO COURTESY OF SYED ISHTIAQUE AHMED

U of T student, Tahmid Hasib Khan, held in Bangladesh then released 

U of T student Tahmid Hasib Khan was detained by police for suspected involvement in a hostage crisis in early July, when armed militants stormed into the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Khan was en route to a summer internship with UNICEF and stopped in Dhaka to visit his family. Five militants entered the restaurant while he was eating with friends, and held the patrons hostage.

Khan was among 13 hostages who escaped unharmed, but was taken into police custody after the attack. Khan’s friends and family demanded his release, but Khan’s status was unknown until August 4, when his arrest was announced by the Bangladeshi Police.

A Facebook page called “Free Tahmid” was created to support Khan’s release and has amassed over 67,000 likes. Weeks later, a video surfaced showing Tahmid holding a gun along an alleged attacker, but according to witnesses of the incident, Khan was forced by the militants to hold the weapon.  

U of T President Meric Gertler penned a letter to Global Affairs Canada and Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, offering the university’s assistance. Global Affairs Canada noted that it was limited in how it could help Khan, due to the fact that he was not a Canadian citizen.

Khan was released in October, although he was charged with not cooperating with police for interviews on July 10th and 21st.

 — Vivian Li


UTSU AGM. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

UTSU AGM. NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

A year at the UTSU: lawsuit, health coverage expansion, election disqualifications

The UTSU had initiated a lawsuit in September 2015 against its former President, Yolen Bollo-Kamara; its former Vice President Internal and Services, Cameron Wathey; and former Executive Director Sandra Hudson.The UTSU claimed that Bollo-Kamara and Wathey fraudulently authorized 2,589.5 hours of overtime pay for Hudson, leaving her with a severance package of $247,726.40, which accounted for approximately 10 per cent of the union’s operating budget. This was despite Hudson allegedly never having claimed any overtime hours during her employment.

In January, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU)’s legal dispute with Bollo-Kamara came to a close after the union’s announcement that both parties had reached a settlement and it would no longer be pursuing a lawsuit against her. The union and Wathey settled their dispute in February. The terms of both settlements remain confidential, although Wathey’s affadavit, made public, stated that he did not financially benefit from the arrangement.

The UTSU’s legal dispute with Hudson is ongoing. Hudson argues that she earned the money that she was paid by the UTSU. She also filed a counterclaim against the union, seeking $300,000 in damages, and alleging that the union breached the confidentiality and non-disparagement clauses of their agreement.

Later in the year, it was announced that the union was expanding the services offered through the UTSU health and dental plan, including psychological care. The changes, which took effect in September 2016, entitled members to receive up to $100 of coverage per session with a registered psychologist, for up to 20 sessions per year.

The union’s elections in March took a surprising turn when all members of the 1UofT slate were disqualified after rulings from the union’s Elections and Referenda Committee (ERC) and the election’s chief returning officer (CRO).

Complications also arose with the UTSU-led Student Commons project, with the union forecasting roughly $300,000 in operational deficits within the first year of the building’s opening.

In October, the UTSU’s proposal for a student levy averaging $3.75 per session for the next five years failed, with 74.5 per cent of voters voting against the fee. The proposed levy would have supported clubs, events, and student service funding.

After a history of annual general meetings (AGM) marked by delays, disruptions, and heated debates, this year’s UTSU’s AGM held on October 28 was praised for its civility and lack of controversy. The meeting saw three motions carried, including the establishment of an Appellate Board, for students to voice concerns or complaints about the election process. The other two motions concerned the union’s budgeting process.

— Emaan Thaver


NATHAN CHAN/THEVARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THEVARSITY

Black Liberation Collective called for UTSU boycott

In October, the Black Liberation College called for a boycott of the UTSU and arranged a protest at the UTSU office, with posters plastering the UTSU office outlining the demands of BLC and identifying former and current members of UTSU by name for their alleged anti-Blackness.

The demands outlined by BLC of the UTSU were for increased funding for Black student groups on campus, for UTSU to drop its ongoing lawsuit with former UTSU executive director Sandra Hudson, and for UTSU to organize a town hall meeting to address the alleged systemic anti-Black racism within UTSU.

A statement released by UTSU after the protest addressed funding demands, stating that UTSU would establish “guaranteed funding for Level 3 clubs at the point of renewed recognition.”

On the lawsuit with Hudson, the statement called for “all individuals affected by the current legal dispute, including all parties to the lawsuit, to be treated with respect.”

In response to BLC demands for a town hall, UTSU held a town hall on November 10 regarding anti-Black racism that garnered five attendees. UTSU was lambasted by BLC for its lack of consultation with Black student groups on campus and poor organization, calling it a “useless” ploy “for good PR.”

Poor attendance at this initial town hall led to the cancellation of a second town hall on anti-Black racism that was meant to be held during the eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) week of activities. Though the UTSU stated it would organize another town hall in collaboration with Black student groups, but could not provide a timeline for when this would occur.

 — Lesley Flores


NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

NATHAN CHAN/THE VARSITY

St. Michael’s College Students’ Union

The St. Michael’s College Students’ Union (SMCSU) has seen its fair share of controversy this academic year.

In late July, the college administration launched an investigation into SMCSU’s finances after finding evidence of financial mismanagement in the union’s practices.

According to a blog post published in September by David Mulroney, President of St. Michael’s College, the investigation found that SMCSU’s finances were “primarily cash-based due to the union’s frequent club nights that take cash at the door and are often poorly accounted for.”

Mulroney announced his decision to restructure the college’s relationships with its three main student-associated groups — SMCSU, the St. Michael’s College Residence Council, and The Mike newspaper — and assign an academic advisor for each group.

In December, the union again found itself in hot water when a set of Snapchat videos involving current and former SMCSU council members surfaced on social media, which were widely called Islamophobic.

Recorded by the union’s then-Vice President Kevin Vando at a birthday party held at the residence of former SMCSU Vice-President Joseph Crimi, the videos show a former SMCSU councillor reading from a book titled Islam for Dummies and singing, “Would you be my Muslim boy?” to the tune of Estelle’s “American Boy.”

The backlash following the leak of the videos saw Vando resign and condemnation from the UTSU. SMCSU released a statement distancing itself from the actions of the party attendees, stressing that the event had not been sponsored or endorsed by the union. It also announced that it was implementing mandatory equity training for all its council members.

Days later, SMCSU announced in a Facebook post that it would be proroguing its activities until early 2017. SMCSU President Zachary Nixon also resigned, and it is unclear who is currently at the helm of SMCSU.

— Emaan Thaver


STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

STEVEN LEE/THE VARSITY

Jordan Peterson 

U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson became the subject of international media attention after The Varsity reported on his YouTube lecture series criticizing “political correctness.”

In the first video, which he released on September 27, Peterson decries Bill C-16, a piece of federal legislation that would amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code to criminalize harassment and discrimination based on gender identity, as well as the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s policies on discrimination based on gender identity. He also states in the video that he would decline a student’s request to be referred to by non-binary pronouns.

Several student groups on campus — including the UTSU, the Arts & Science Students’ Union, the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union, and the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union — issued statements criticizing Peterson’s remarks. In addition, activists from the trans community organized a rally and teach-in on trans issues in front of Sidney Smith Hall.

A week after that rally, students supporting Jordan Peterson held their own “U of T Rally for Free Speech” on campus, which was punctuated by conflict and outbursts of violence after it was met with counter-protests. The student group University of Toronto Students in Support of Free Speech was founded and recognized by Ulife after the rally. Subsequently, U of T announced that some members of the trans community on campus had received threats of violence on social media.

On October 23, Arts & Science Dean David Cameron and Vice-Provost Academic Programs Sioban Nelson sent a letter to Peterson, requesting that he refer to students by their requested pronouns and refrain from making such public statements. Peterson harshly criticized these letters, saying that they were attempts to silence him by the institution.

The university hosted a forum on Bill C-16 on November 19. Peterson debated Law Professor and Director of the Bonham Centre of Sexual Diversity at University College Brenda Cossman, and University of British Columbia (UBC) Professor of Education and Senior Associate Dean, Administration, Faculty Affairs & Innovation Mary Bryson. Mayo Moran, a U of T Law Professor who also serves as the Provost of Trinity College, moderated the forum.

Peterson has received ample publicity following his YouTube lectures, and has received a major influx of patrons on Patreon, a fundraising platform, since he began speaking publicly about political correctness.

— Tom Yun

UofT350 drops banners at Cressy Awards ceremony

Climate justice group protests divestment decision

UofT350 drops banners at Cressy Awards ceremony

Organizers with climate justice group UofT350 staged a demonstration at the Gordon Cressy Student Leadership Awards ceremony to protest U of T’s lack of action on divestment from fossil fuels. The action took place on April 20 and followed U of T president Meric Gertler’s rejection of the recommendations of the advisory committee on fossil fuel divestment in late March.

The Cressy Awards recognize exceptional campus leadership, and the awards ceremony takes place in Convocation Hall.

According to Sydney Lang, fourth year student, organizer of UofT350, and Cressy Award recipient, staging the demonstration at the ceremony was a way to highlight the irony of leadership at U of T. “The President rejected fossil fuel divestment, yet claims to be a climate leader. We wanted to make it clear that U of T is most definitely not a leader in climate justice, nor have they ever been a leader in any important issue throughout history,” Lang said, referring to the length of time it took for the university to divest from South African apartheid.

“We found it ironic that such an institution would be then rewarding its students for their leadership, and we questioned what leadership even means within this facade of ‘social change’ and ‘innovation’ that U of T fosters,” Lang added.

Lang also cited personal reasons for engaging in the action. “I was embarrassed to be receiving a leadership award from a President who thinks that leadership is not taking a stand against injustice and an institution that profits from climate change and remains complicit in human rights and environmental violations through its corporate investments,” she said. “Complicity is most definitely not leadership and it is our responsibility as students to not remain complicit in the violent decisions of this institution.”

The protest involved two banner drops that read “divestment = leadership” and “REAL leaders don’t profit from climate change,” which occurred during Gertler’s speech and after all the recipients had claimed their rewards, respectively. Several award­winners participated in the protest by pinning ‘x’­shaped badges — the symbol of fossil fuel divestment — to their clothes.

Lang and two other students chose to wear shirts bearing pro­divestment slogans as they took to the stage to receive their awards. “The orange X that will be displayed in a significant amount of photos will leave a lasting and visible impression of student resistance and a constant reminder that students stood on the right side of history (like always), even when the President chose not to,” Lang said.

Lang said that the group thought about planning a more disruptive action, but decided against such an approach in order to respect the meaning of the awards to other students. She suggested that the peaceful course of action that UofT350 carried out was well-­received.

“We received a lot of positive feedback from award recipients, faculty, and administrators, after the ceremony (including a few Dean’s [sic] of colleges). I think that they appreciated the silent nature of the action,” Lang said.

Althea Blackburn­-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, said that members of UofT350 in attendance at the ceremony behaved respectfully and that their actions were kept within the university’s values of freedom of speech and expression.

Blackburn­-Evans confirmed that the university has not been in contact with UofT350 members since the event, and that the protest has not impacted the university’s relationship with them.

Lang noted that the organising methods of UofT350 are part of a larger strategy change within activism; similar divestment campaigns are occurring at other universities around the world, while, close to home, Black Lives Matter Toronto constructed a “tent city” at the Toronto Police Headquarters and organizers staged occupations of Indigenous and Northern Affairs offices.

“It’s a really exciting time ­ people are standing up and resisting and telling these corporations and colonial institutions that enough is enough, we won’t stand for this injustice anymore,” Lang said.

Op-ed: An open letter to the University of Toronto on fossil fuel divestment

In defense of the Toronto principle

Op-ed: An open letter to the University of Toronto on fossil fuel divestment

Climate change is one of the most urgent challenges of our time. It requires bold action from all corners of society, including institutions of higher learning like the University of Toronto.

President Meric Gertler’s response to the report from the Ad Hoc Committee on Divestment From Fossil Fuels and the petition from the student group Toronto 350.org embraces this idea. In particular, we acknowledge the significance of the President’s calls on the university to: bring to bear its research and educational prowess on the challenge of moving towards a sustainable and low carbon society; launch a clean-tech entrepreneurship challenge and help bring our research to the community; use our campuses as ‘test beds’ for environmental and sustainability research; join the growing carbon disclosure and transparency movement; and require the university to incorporate environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors into assessing fiduciary risk and evaluating investment decisions. These are positive measures and we share President Gertler’s ambition for the University of Toronto to be a leader on climate change and sustainability.

At the same time, respecting the tradition of open academic discourse, we argue that the university should go further. The strategy of targeted divestment articulated in our report – what has become known as the Toronto Principle – goes beyond the measures in the President’s response, and if adopted, would establish the university’s role as a clear and principled leader on climate change and sustainability.

What is the Toronto Principle?

The starting point is the principle, enshrined in its own policy, that the university should not invest in activities that cause social injury. While this may have been an unambiguous guide for previous divestments from tobacco and apartheid, it is evident that fossil fuels are currently necessary, and do good as well as harm. The proposal is therefore to target specific behaviors of fossil fuel companies rather than the entire sector. Specifically, the university should divest from:

“firms whose actions blatantly disregard the international effort to limit the rise in average global temperatures to not more than 1.5 C. These are fossil fuels companies whose actions are irreconcilable with achieving internationally agreed goals, inordinately contributing to social injury and greatly increasing the likelihood of catastrophic global consequences;”

Examples of such firms include fossil fuel companies that engage in aggressive (and ultimately unnecessary) extraction and exploration, for instance in the arctic and tar sands, and companies that deliberately spread disinformation on climate science.

Of course, the university operates in a restricted regulatory and policy framework and its fiduciary duties rightly constrain the investment and divestment actions it may pursue. As the President points out, the ESG-based approach he has advanced may well “produce outcomes consistent with the specific guidelines recommended” by our Committee. As he writes, “my expectation is that such investments – properly assessed – would indeed be deemed undesirable from the perspective of ESG-related factors.” If this is correct, and the Committee believes it may be, then the President’s proposal would amount to de facto divestment, in line with what we have recommended.

However, promoting the university’s long-term best financial interest is not a justification for divestment; it is a condition any divestment action must respect. The reason to divest from the blatant disregarders is that it is wrong for the university to participate in and contribute to their socially injurious activities. The Toronto Principle maintains that such investments should be dropped not only because they are bad investments, but also because such investments are morally wrong.

This is not a subtle point. The essence of the Toronto Principle is the contention that it is wrong for the University through its investments to participate in and contribute to socially injurious activities that offer society no indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained in any other way. Social injury, as the university’s policy makes clear, should guide our divestment decisions. Considering long-term investment risk and ESG factors is good investment practice, but it is not the extent of the university’s responsibility under the Toronto Principle.

The university policy that our committee’s work was founded upon asks us to consider the social injury that arises from the corporate behavior under scrutiny. While not all such behavior in the fossil fuel sector reaches this bar, it is possible to make judgments about behavior that does. When fossil fuel companies engage in environmentally aggressive extraction, for example, or spread disinformation, they are contributing to socially injurious activities that offer society no indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained in any other way.

The university should not participate in or contribute to such behavior through its investments. There may be other examples and the criteria may change over time as the world learns what is necessary to transform itself towards sustainability and a low carbon future.

Incorporating environmental, social, and governance criteria into the university investment decisions and signing on to the Carbon Disclosure Project and the Montréal Carbon Pledge are important and positive steps. However, respectfully, they are only partial steps towards leadership on climate change and sustainability because they frame the issue as one entirely of fiduciary risk.

Yes, it would be good if the corporations listed as examples in our report were screened out by these criteria. But that is, in some ways, beside the point. After all, what if the ESG analysis found that such companies were neither more nor less risky than alternative investments?

The question is not whether climate change makes investments riskier in a fiduciary sense and thus excludable from the university’s investment portfolios. The question is whether the university should be investing in companies that are causing egregious social injury when alternative investments could also meet the University’s fiduciary duties. ESG principles and disclosure initiatives cannot provide guidance on this more important question. The Toronto Principle provides such guidance and, further, it is a means for the University of Toronto to lead and have an impact that goes far beyond the financial influence of our investment decisions. It is a principle that we believe the University should adopt.

Sincerely,

Select former member of the Ad Hoc Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels:

Professor Peter Burns

Mr. Graham Coulter

Professor Andrew Green

Professor Matthew Hoffmann

Professor Arthur Hosios

Professor Bryan Karney

Professor Mohan Matthen

Professor Barbara Sherwood Lollar

Ms. Rita O’Brien

U of T rejects fossil fuel divestment recommendations

President supports “firm by firm” approach instead

U of T rejects fossil fuel divestment recommendations

Following over three years of student led advocacy and the striking of a Presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels, the University of Toronto will not be adopting recommendations to divest immediately from firms complicit in anthropogenic climate change, according to a copy of the official administrative response obtained by The Varsity.

Instead, Gertler proposed taking a “firm-by-firm” approach, which advocates a targeted and flexible approach to divestment. This approach includes incorporating environmental, social, and governance-based factors (ESG) “instead of a blanket divestment approach.”

The decision

“So we’ve decided to operationalize or really move the work of the committee in three ways,” said Gertler, in an interview with The Varsity. “One [of the ways] is by accepting the idea of targeting, in which we have singled out particular firms, egregious firms. The second is that the university’s position on whether or not to invest in firms could change over time, if [a blacklisted firm] changed its behaviours, they could be considered eligible for investment.”

The third way, according to Gertler, is to reconcile the university’s need to uphold its judiciary responsibility with its desire to do something positive for the planet, by incorporating ESG factors into the analysis of climate risk.

“There is growing acknowledgment of the idea that those firms that adopt sound ESG practices reduce risk over time and may offer better long term value for investors,” reads a portion of the president’s report.

According to the report, the main advantage of such an approach is that it would tackle the effects of climate change, while fulfilling the university’s fiduciary obligations.

Gertler explained that the work done to assess the ESG factors wouldn’t necessarily be done by the UTAM itself. “What’s happened in the last few years is that we’ve seen new companies bringing up and developing new lines of businesses. They assess the ESG factors of firms that they might use in their investment portfolio and have developed the tools to do so, tools that we can use. At the same time, people in central and influential places such as Michael Bloomberg, Mark Carney, the Financial Stability Board have started a new project to develop a standard set of tools and metrics to determine climate related risks in investments in a consistent way.”

Gertler hopes to use investments to influence behaviour in the fossil fuel-producing sector and in other areas of the Canadian economy. “We are really struck by the fact that fossil fuel firms are only generally about one quarter of greenhouse gases, if we’re focusing on those, we’re ignoring three quarters of emissions that come from elsewhere.”

UofT350

UofT350, a student-led environmental justice advocacy group, condemned Gertler’s ESG factor-based approach to climate change.

“The President’s recommendation totally ignores the urgent need to act on climate change, suggesting that tactics like ESG, shareholder activism and carbon disclosure are sufficient to encourage rapid societal shifts to carbon free economies. We cannot develop more fossil fuel reserves, we cannot pretend that fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil, who engaged in climate change denial and fund climate science misinformation, are interested in combatting climate change and we cannot ignore the many frontline communities that are already suffering the devastating effects of climate change and have their rights systematically violated by the fossil fuel industry,” the group wrote in a public statement posted to their Facebook page.

“The ESG-approach is a form of greenwashing rooted in the assumption that we should reward fossil fuel companies for doing bad things well,” said Clement Cheng, a UofT350 member. “With respect to fossil fuel companies, ESGs simply mean that they can continue their fundamentally injurious practices albeit in a well-governed, transparent manner… Nonetheless, ESGs and divestment are not mutually exclusive principles and, when applied together, they actually amplify the message to move away from fossil fuels,” he added.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, UofT350 media coordinator, said that the ESG approach misses the point of divestment. “Divestment is an opportunity to take a really strong moral stance on an important issue in a time where there is a lot of urgency around climate change, this is a serious issue and the response needs to have equal intensity to the problem. [Gertler’s] response is weak and simply not enough,” she stated.

Both Cheng and Harvey-Sanchez expressed dismay at the president’s rejection of the advisory committee’s recommendations. “The president’s own committee served our university’s leaders the opportunity for moral leadership on a silver platter. Unfortunately, President Gertler cowardly chose not to take it,” said Cheng.

Although Gertler praised the committee for its “intellectual energy and integrity that so distinguishes our academic community,” Cheng condemned the president’s decision not to trust their expert recommendation. “Instead, he formed four new, unannounced working groups comprised of unknown members from his senior administrative team to revise the committee’s findings in the span of just three months,” Cheng said, alleging that the meetings were sealed from the committee and that the content and attendance at them remain undisclosed.

Fossil fuel divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

Fossil fuel divestment march at U of T. CC Flickr by Milan Ilnyckyj.

“[Gertler] has made no commitment at present to any actual changes in the investment, which is incredibly different from what his own advisory committee has recommended,” said Harvey-Sanchez. “What’s almost as appalling as his decision is that the president and the administration and UofT news is actually trying to pin this as a victory which is a misrepresentation of facts and dishonest.”

Cheng countered the president’s reasons for not divesting. “Gertler’s assertion distorts the fact that this 25 per cent share from the oil and gas industry represents the biggest and fastest growing contributor to Canada’s emissions. More importantly, 25 per cent only describes the emissions released from the extraction of the fossil fuels and entirely neglects the much larger portion of emissions caused by burning them,” Cheng said.

The president’s second reason is associated with shareholder activism, which Cheng said is a common argument against divestment.

“Shareholder activism ignores the industry’s longstanding track record of environmental degradation, human rights violations, funding of climate science denial and the ongoing extraction of reserves that contain five times more fossil fuels than we could ever safely burn,” Cheng countered.

Cheng expressed concern with Gertler’s decision to delegate the task of defining ESG criteria to the UTAM. William Moriarity, UTAM CEO, received a 57 per cent raise this year, bringing his compensation to $1.48 million. UofT350 alleges that this increase demonstrates where the university’s priorities lie.

According to a leaked email posted to UofT350’s Facebook page, the president’s office mandated a shutdown to prevent any sit-ins similar to those that took place at McGill University following the institution’s rejection of fossil fuel divestment in late March. “This person, who I will not name, replied back saying ‘oh, you were accidentally cc’ed in this email. I hope I can count on your integrity and graces to keep it confidential,” said Harvey-Sanchez of the email.

“The fact that email was sent shows that the administration is aware that the president’s response is inadequate and unaccountable to the university community and that there are going to be repercussions for those actions. It shows that they’re afraid and it shows that people have the power to make them scared and they have good reason to keep their doors locked. I cant say exactly how we’re going to be acting but they should be expecting repercussions as they are,” Harvey-Sanchez continued.

When asked about the email leak, Gertler said that he is not party to all of the discussions that take place around security matters at U of T.

“Our hope is that we can continue to discuss these issues in a civil and peaceful manner,” Gertler said. He then praised UofT350’s engagement with fossil fuel divestment. “I’ve been so impressed by UofT350, by the way that they have engaged these discussions in a civil and calm and rational way and I hope we can continue that.”

Committee recommendations

In the December 2015 report, the advisory committee advocated for an immediate divestment from firms that derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction: firms that knowingly disseminate information on climate change science or distort science or public policy to thwart or delay changes in behaviour or regulation, and firms that derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from coal extraction.

The committee left it to the university to define what would count as “non-conventional or aggressive extraction.” 

“Frankly it doesn’t need the sort of dictionary definition, as what I liked about the assessment was that they were advocating for some kind of flexibility,” said Gertler when asked about defining “non-conventional or aggressive extraction.”

He added that the university currently does not have any direct investments in the firms mentioned in the committee’s report. “There is reasonable evidence that such investments could indeed carry increased financial risk, and have a reasonable prospect of lower long-term investment outcomes, making them unattractive as long-term investments by the University,” he wrote in his report.

U of T president to decide fate of fossil fuels by March 31

Meric Gertler sets deadline to rule on divestment

U of T president to decide fate of fossil fuels by March 31

The possibility of targeted divestment from fossil fuels will hang in the balance until March 31, the date when University of Toronto president Meric Gertler will decide whether or not to accept the recommendations of the ad-hoc committee on fossil fuel divestment. Members of UofT350, an organization devoted to mitigating climate change impacts, met with Gertler on February 1 and confirmed the deadline.

Indigenous rights

Lila Asher, UofT350 outreach chair, explained that the meeting was intended to address three issues: the timeline for the divestment decision; the interpretation of the committee’s criteria, and the addition of a criterion for divesting from companies that violate the rights of Indigenous peoples.

“Our goals were to encourage him to divest, push for the decision to be released this semester, get him to consider our input on the criteria, and agree to work on a criteria based around Indigenous rights,” said Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, UofT350 campaign lead.

“Indigenous rights were clearly addressed in our brief on divestment and in a presentation we gave to the committee, and so we were disappointed when there was no mention of this in the committee’s recommendation,” she explained. “The committee acknowledged the social injury caused to people worldwide from the direct impacts of climate change; however, the committee failed to acknowledge the social injury caused by extraction and pollution, which disproportionately impacts Indigenous people.”

At the meeting, Gertler agreed to bring the topic of Indigenous rights to the newly-struck Truth and Reconciliation Commission committee at U of T. “[Gertler] agreed to ask the U of T committee that is currently forming to discuss the implications of the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission if they will think about a divestment criteria,” said Asher.

The timeline

Both Asher and Harvey-Sanchez believe that the meeting was positive. “Getting to this point has been a long time coming,” said Harvey-Sanchez.

Harvey-Sanchez stated that she was “generally pleased” with the outcome of the meeting. According to Harvey-Sanchez, Gertler was receptive to their concerns and he recognized the importance of U of T taking meaningful action on climate change.

Harvey-Sanchez added that although Gertler did not commit to divestment, he “seemed sympathetic to the idea.”  She added that UofT350 is happy with a guaranteed response by the end of March.

According to Asher, in addition to the March 31 deadline, Gertler committed to receiving input from UofT350 in the form of a report. This report is set to be delivered to him by February 25.

Committee recommendations

The main recommendations from the fossil fuel divestment committee include evaluating whether the actions of a fossil fuel company disregard the “1.5 degree threshold.”

The 1.5 degree threshold refers to any company whose actions contribute to a rise in the planet’s temperature by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. The committee recommended that U of T come up with a method by which to determine which companies are at fault for a ride in global temperature.

Additionally, the committee emphasized that companies which “derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction,” should be considered for divestment.

The committee has left the definition of “non-conventional or aggressive extraction” to the university.

The second criterion focuses on firms ‘that knowingly disseminate disinformation concerning climate change science or firms that deliberately distort science or public policy more generally in an effort to thwart or delay changes in behaviour or regulation’.

The report listed ConocoPhilips Co., ExxonMobile Corp., Peabody Energy Corporation, Arch Coal Inc., Alpha Natural Resources LLC, Cloud Peak Energy, and Westmoreland Coal Company as examples of companies that meet the criteria listed above.

Campaign for fossil fuel divestment

The battle for fossil fuel divestment first began in March 2014, when the divestment campaign delivered a petition to the administration, asking for the university to “fully divest from direct investments in fossil fuel companies within five years and not make any new investments in the industry.”

The Presidential Advisory Committee on Fossil Fuel Divestment reviewed the petition. One year later, the committee released a report recommending ”immediate and targeted divestment from fossil fuel companies.”

Currently U of T has invested roughly $32.4 million into fossil fuel companies, the majority of which is in pooled funds along with a small number of direct holdings.

The petition asked for divestment only from the university’s direct holdings.

“There is no straightforward way to determine exactly how much the university may invest in fossil fuel companies,” explained Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T. “The University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), which manages investments on behalf of the University, identifies various investment strategies that are then carried out by fund managers. The majority of those strategies are complex and, as a consequence, are implemented largely through pooled investment funds.”

There are no current plans to schedule another meeting between UofT350 and the administration unless prompted by the university. Both Asher and Harvey-Sanchez maintain that they plan to ensure that Gertler keeps his promise of a decision by the promised deadline.

“UofT350 maintains that divestment is the right choice ethically and financially and is an important aspect of climate leadership for any respectable University, and we hope that President Gertler will fully agree with us by his deadline,” said Asher.

Presidential divestment committee recommends “targeted divestment” from fossil fuels

Report calls for evaluation of companies’ actions

Presidential divestment committee recommends “targeted divestment” from fossil fuels

The presidential Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels has recommended that the University of Toronto divest from companies that “engage in egregious behaviour and contribute inordinately to social injury.” In a 24-page report released the morning of December 16, the committee specified that the university’s focus should be on companies whose activities disregard international efforts to limit the rise in average global temperatures to less than 1.5-degrees Celsius.

“It is our view that fossil fuels firms engaging in activities that blatantly disregard the 1.5-degree threshold are engaging egregiously in socially injurious behaviour that is irreconcilable with internationally agreed limits to the rise in average global temperatures and thereby greatly increasing the likelihood of catastrophic global consequences,” reads part of the report.

The report comes after students involved with the divestment campaign at U of T presented a 190-page brief to the university in March 2014 urging for divestment from its direct holdings in fossil fuel companies. In response, U of T president Meric Gertler struck an ad-hoc committee in November 2014 to analyze the university’s position. Since that time, U of T students have participated in demonstrations calling for divestment and climate justice both on and off campus.

Amanda Harvey-Sanchez, a second-year environmental studies student at U of T and divestment campaign lead with Toronto350, the local branch of climate justice advocacy group 350.org, said that the recommendations represent a positive step towards fulfilling the goal of calling for divestment from all fossil fuels.

“The committee recommendations reinforce the suggestion [at the COP21 climate conference] in Paris that the fossil fuel era is over and investors have to get out now,” said Harvey-Shanchez. “It also recognizes that the fossil fuel industry’s business model contradicts the 1.5ºC target,” she added.

“The divestment committee tackled its mandate with the same intellectual energy and integrity that so distinguishes our academic community and I wish to thank them personally for their efforts on my behalf and on behalf of the entire University of Toronto,” said Gertler of the committee’s work in an interview with U of T News.

The report highlights “firms that derive more than 10 per cent of their revenue from non-conventional or aggressive extraction” as the type of company from which U of T should divest. The committee recommends that U of T initiate an evaluation process to determine whether a fossil fuel firm’s actions abide by the 1.5-degree threshold.

“We leave it to the University to define fully what counts as ‘non-conventional or aggressive extraction,’” the committee said in the report, suggesting that methods such as open-pit mining of natural bitumen in Canada, Arctic extraction or exploration, and thermal coal mining in Canada and the United States, are examples of such extraction.

Although students from the campus divestment campaign hailed the committee’s recommendations as precedent for other educational institutions to follow suit, they said that U of T should also take action for communities harmed by climate change and fossil fuel extraction.

“We do feel that the committee recommendations ignore communities and people who are negatively affected by fossil fuel extraction,” said Harvey-Sanchez, identifying Indigenous communities among those most affected.

“The recommendation fails to acknowledge that fossil fuel companies who violate Indigenous peoples’ right to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent commit social injury,” campaign members said in a press release.

“I think now the [U of T] president has to stand on the right side of history and divest from all fossil fuels,” said Harvey-Sanchez.

Bryan Karney, an environmental engineering professor at U of T and member of the committee, told U of T News that the reason behind suggesting a targeted approach to divestment as opposed to a blanket approach was because the committee believes that some fossil fuels still offer invaluable benefits that currently cannot be achieved through other sources.

“The Committee acknowledges that certain activities, though socially injurious, nevertheless offer society indispensable benefits that currently cannot reasonably be gained in any other way,” the report says.

The committee emphasized the role of U of T as an educational institution in contributing to the global effort to combat climate change and that following the recommendations in the report should be an important part of the university’s action. “The Committee respectfully calls upon our academic community to amplify its collective efforts — in climate change-related scholarship, education, innovation, and entrepreneurship — to help meet the overriding social and environmental issue of our time,” the committee said in the report.

The committee also cast mitigating the challenges of climate change as a continuous effort at U of T and an open dialogue on campus. “This process, undoubtedly, will continue and intensify past the completion and submission of this report; the Committee hopes that some of the recommendations and principles articulated here will help inform that future. Not everyone will agree. The debate will carry on, into the laboratories, common rooms, offices, and ultimately into classrooms and into the curriculum. This is, of course, exactly how it should be.”

U of T has lost $550 million by choosing not to divest from fossil fuels, report claims

Corporate Knights uses “decarbonizer tool” to generate data

U of T has lost $550 million by choosing not to divest from fossil fuels, report claims

A recent report by Corporate Knights, an organization that promotes “clean capitalism,” claims that the University of Toronto has lost over $550 million CAD by not divesting from fossil fuel firms over the course of the past three years.

“U of T is an institution that is designed to prepare students for the future and they should not be investing in companies whose business plans [are] built around making that future unliveable,” said Sam Harrison communication coordinator at UofT350, a group of climate justice organizers at U of T.

The application Corporate Knights used to analyse this loss is called the decarbonizer tool and allows a user to take an investment portfolio and retroactively divest it to create an alternate portfolio.

Corporate Knights ran a side-by-side comparison of U of T’s portfolio, one showing its current state, and another in which the university had divested from fossil fuels. The results stated that, for the past three years, the university has been consistently losing money in its fossil fuel investments.

Althea Blackburn-Evans, director of news & media relations at U of T, said that the issues of divestment and investment are mutually exclusive and are being wrongfully conflated. “Decisions about whether or not the university divest[s] from a company or an industry, those are not investments, so they can’t be motivated by a company or an industry’s profitability,” Blackburn-Evans said. “Divestment is focussed on essentially the university’s social responsibility in an investor, and then its response to activities or behaviours that may cause social injuries.”

When asked about the particular investments made, Blackburn-Evans said, “what [Corporate Knights is] basically saying is the university has lost a lot of money. I can’t confirm or deny that the university lost that money. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but that’s about an investment decision right? It’s not about a divestment decision, so they’re making an argument that if the university had made a different investment decision perhaps they wouldn’t have lost this money?”

Harrison countered, “It is possible that [U of T] could divest from fossil fuels and then not use the money for anything else. That is highly unlikely. [We’re asking for the university to] divest from the 200 fossil fuel companies [and] if they do that they’re going to have a bunch of new money that they’re going to want to invest in something else.”

Harrison claimed that, while methodology used in producing these results may vary, the conclusion is clear that by investing in climate change the university is losing large sums of money that could have been used elsewhere.

Although he declined to speculate on the upcoming committee decision on whether or not to divest from fossil fuel firms, Harrison did note that if U of T went ahead with divestment, it would be a “brave” decision. “A lot of universities have not been divesting largely for reasons that are not credible and have been debunked,” he said.

Many other universities in North America have also been facing the same issues that arise from this heated debate. Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have decided not to divest and instead have agreed to spend around $300 million USD in the course of the next five years to research climate change and technology, developing “low-carbon energy centres” to produce sustainable energy. Universities in Canada such as Dalhousie and McGill have decided to be active as shareholders in the company.

Harrison, however, did not believe in the feasibility of what he called “shareholder activism.” He emphasized a need for U of T to go against the grain of Canadian universities and take a step outside the comfort zone of academic research.

So far, this issue has taken root among both students and faculty members. Lila Asher, another member of UofT350, organized a march in late October. “It’s upsetting that U of T still trusts fossil fuel companies with its money. These companies are irresponsible: they ignore climate science and can’t even turn a profit for student programs at this university,” said Asher in a press release.

On a global scale, climate change has become an increasingly popular issue. From November 30 to December 11, 2015,  delegates to the Paris Climate Change Conference will discuss the urgency of climate change and the devastation that it has caused in multiple parts of the world, as well as further damage that could be done. Due to the alarming nature of climate change, a new global agreement is on the table to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for which the commitments will expire in 2020.

Harrison claimed that this should be reason enough to encourage fossil fuel divestment. “Academics aren’t usually big fans of big symbolic statements, but in lead up to one of the most important UN climate conferences ever there’s never been a more important time to have big symbolic statements.”

With files from Iris Robin