Where have all the activists gone?

In light of U of T’s most recent sustainability plan, campus climate activism needs to step up

Where have all the activists gone?

At a moment when youth-led climate activism is dominating the media landscape, such advocacy is conspicuously absent on U of T’s campus.

This is especially peculiar in light of the fact that recent campus climate action has demonstrated that student activism has the potential to compel those in power to consider arguments backed by popular student support and cogent, empirically-sourced evidence.

In 2015, UofT350, a climate activism group, embarked on a well-organized and focused campaign. They aimed to convince the university to divest their stocks in fossil fuel companies to limit carbon dioxide emissions. After three years of sustained climate action, the group succeeded in lobbying the Governing Council to establish the Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels.

The Committee found that in accordance with U of T’s stated mission to lead the battle against climate change, the university should financially divest from organizations that flout sustainable resource extraction practices.

U of T President Meric Gertler responded to the report published by the Committee by announcing that he would skirt its findings and abstain from complying with its heavily substantiated recommendations to divest.

Instead, he opted to establish another advisory committee, whose recommendations do not indicate that the university is planning to demonstrate meaningful action at a level appropriate to combating climate change.

It would be reasonable to feel helpless in the face of institutional power that seems determined to permit the devastation of our planet. However, as tuition-paying students of an institution which posits itself as a champion of knowledge and innovation, we cannot allow a setback to discourage our efforts in demanding substantive change.

In the coming academic year, student activists should look to the strengths and obstacles of UofT350’s action, and coordinate a renewed campaign with a specific strategic goal. Such a campaign would hopefully be one that attempts to incorporate groups across campus which also advocate for student interests, such as U of T’s Indigenous communities or our incoming student governments.

Leap UofT has made sporadic attempts at reviving the divestment movement, culminating in a “Divest Fest” this past April. If there is to be a significant response from the university’s administration, it is crucial that actions such as petitions and protest events are coordinated with clear objectives in mind and sustained consistently over the long term.

Campus activists should not be deterred by a perceived failure of the earlier divestment campaign. UofT350 succeeded both in placing the issue on the highest desk in the land and obtaining significant recognition that their demands for divestment were legitimate, and those successes cannot be overlooked.

There are also notable examples of youth-led climate activism across the globe that have gained substantial ground which students might look to for encouragement.

Several major countries in the European Union, including France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, tabled a joint proposal earlier this month to increase the Union’s budget expenditure on fighting climate change from 20 per cent to 25 per cent. The proposal cites as a motivating factor “the recent mobilization of young people” across Europe, referring to the mass student walkouts initiated by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg.

Closer to home, 350.org — UofT350’s parent organization — is currently preparing to roll out its Canadian Green New Deal campaign, which aims to put specific and attainable strategies for sustainable economic development on the radar of politicians running in this year’s federal election. Their campaign will be primarily spearheaded by young people across Canada.

These movements demonstrate that meaningful public policy in the direction of progress is, for the most part, attained through well-organized popular action. The results will rarely be as far forward as one may hope for, but that should only be motivation to reorient, reorganize, and continue to push the envelope further.

Anna Osterberg is a second-year Master of Teaching student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

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.


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, 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.