Divestment a Step to Ending Climate Change

Universities Should Withdraw Funds From Fossil Fuel Companies

Graphic Paku Daoust-Cloutier

During Concordia University’s reading week, I made my way from frozen Montreal to the thawing state of Pennsylvania.

Four of my friends and I had been invited to attend a conference from Feb. 22 to Feb. 24 at Swarthmore College on the topic of divestment.

In a university context, “divestment” specifically means the de-investing of the school’s endowment funds from any shares in the 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies in North America.

The concept of “divestment” had been turning in the minds of many students since mid-October, when many activists attended the 2012 Power Shift Canada, an environmental youth conference held in Ottawa.

The conference included many indigenous speakers from frontline communities, as well as famous environmentalists such as Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein. The conference, which took place from Oct. 26 to Oct. 29, educated participants on the power dynamics inherent in the systems of modern North American life.

Participants learned how these dynamics affect efforts to further environmental justice. The conference culminated in a Halloween-themed protest urging the federal government to end its subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.

When contemplating power dynamics, the question of money quickly arises: where is the money and what is it doing? The answer partially has to do with a government that is heavily subsidizing the fossil fuel industry, but there are many other factors at play as well.

The focus of the conference in Pennsylvania was on the role of the university. The money subsidizing the fossil fuel industry is also coming from our schools’ endowment funds.

There is precedent for the success of divestment campaigns. By 1988, 155 universities—including Columbia University, Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley—had removed their investments from businesses implicated in South African apartheid, and their message was heard.

UC Berkeley, in particular, withdrew in excess of $3 billion from businesses operating in South Africa; former South African president Nelson Mandela reportedly later credited the university’s decision with having an impact on the eventual end of apartheid.

And if divestment campaigns have been successful before, there is a good chance they could be successful again.

Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Unity College in Maine have already agreed to divest from fossil fuel companies. McGill University also said on Feb. 28 that it would review a petition by students demanding that the university divest from the Alberta tar sands.

Some participants in the conference were challenging billion-dollar investments. Other students, including the Concordia students, were instead trying to tackle a few million. The conclusion was that the amount in question did not matter—the goal of divestment is not first and foremost to bankrupt the industry.

From personal research, the conference and extensive discussion on the topic, I have learned about the significance of the support of academic institutions to industry.

The act of withdrawing universities’ investments in an industry sends the message that the universities no longer believe that the industry is one that will continue. It is sending a message that the industry is dying.

Universities like Concordia are respected for the expertise of their faculty members, as well as for the potential in their student bodies. This combination of the existing knowledge of specialists and the flourishing young leaders gives tremendous importance to the decisions of academic institutions.

If the message is clear and united across the academic world, both the fossil fuel industry and the community at large will be affected.

It will become clear that the atrocities of the fossil fuel industry against the health and well-being of front-line communities, and against the environment in the impending climate crisis, are being taken seriously.

While returning to Montreal, I felt keenly aware of the power of the young and growing Divest Concordia group and of all the divestment campaigns across North America. We have strategy, tactics, goals and a timeline all thoroughly discussed and noted in detail.

I feel prepared to open dialogue with senior administration and Concordia’s Board of Governors on this topic. Most importantly, I have learned about the necessity for including those groups who are least heard and most affected by industry in the dialogue.

Having heard from Crystal Lameman—proud mother from the Beaver Lake Cree Nation—about how members of her community are sick and dying due to the environmental degradation caused by Northern Alberta tar sands developments, in an area the federal government claims to be uninhabited, it is hard not to react.

Those organizing and supporting divestment campaigns in our universities will be working tirelessly to make sure of it.

Hannah McCormick is the Zero Waste Campaign coordinator in Sustainable Concordia’s R4 working group.