The Global Movement to Divest from Fossil Fuels Gains Momentum

International support from the UN, political attacks from Jean Charest and a looming day of global action scheduled for Feb. 13.

Last fall, Concordia’s administration announced that they would shift four per cent of the university’s endowment funds to sustainable investments.

While many pragmatic environmentalists acknowledged this as a valuable first step, others criticized the action as a mere public relations stunt. Nevertheless, Concordia became the first post-secondary institution in Canada to take some kind of action as a result of the fossil fuel divestment campaign.

It came as no surprise that former Quebec premier Jean Charest published an open letter in La Presse last week denouncing the divestment campaign, which he criticized for being “organized by students” and for unfairly targeting the “big bad oil companies.” He went further by taking direct aim at Concordia’s micro-divestment by suggesting that the fund managers acted irresponsibly. According to Charest, investments should be made with one thing in mind: profits.

Of course, this type of response was to be expected from someone like Jean Charest, who is well known for his promotion of hydraulic fracturing, the Canadian tar sands and a number of other reckless environmental policies. The fundamental argument behind the divestment movement is that investing in fossil fuel companies is unethical, contributes to global climate change and that academic institutions should be a driving force behind the societal transformation necessary to combat environmental collapse.

Investment bankers are quick to point out that placing funds in the fossil fuel industry is profitable, reliable and relatively secure. These corporations have demonstrated their extraordinary ability to manipulate elected officials and public opinion in Canada by pouring millions of dollars into public relations campaigns and advertising. Few investments are more secure than investing in the Canadian oil sands, where environmental regulation is virtually non-existent, taxes are low and the government subsidies keep on flowing to the sector, despite widespread austerity measures being imposed on the population. In such a context, fossil fuel investments may be profitable, but they’re certainly not ethical.

Divestment got a boost in November 2014 when United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged pension funds and insurance companies to shift their investments towards renewable energy. United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres went further by saying that academic institutions still invested in fossil fuels “should ask themselves whether they are in breach of their social responsibility to serve the community, the nation and the world.” Barack Obama, Naomi Klein and Al Gore have also shown their support recently.

There is an emerging consensus amongst leading intellectuals, scholars and world leaders that divestment is a worthwhile, significant and necessary step in the fight against climate change. One of the main questions that divestment campaigners are faced with is what sort of investments should replace fossil fuels and how the institution can guarantee that their moral decision to pull back investments will not affect the institution’s financial bottom line. This question has been on the lips of Concordia president Alan Shepard since the campaign began on campus in early 2013.

Fossil fuel divestment is about getting people and institutions to take a principled stand in the face of easy money. There are many ways in which profits can be gained by engaging in unethical behaviour. Academic institutions speaking out and divesting from fossil fuels makes it more difficult for elected officials to continue taking us down a road that many scientists argue will lead to our extinction.

Although the actions taken by the Concordia admin to date are superficial, they will become significant if and only if the admin moves towards 100 per cent divestment from fossil fuels. This is a golden opportunity for Concordia to show outstanding leadership on the international level. The sooner Concordia takes meaningful action, the better. Let’s keep up the pressure.

Alex Tyrrell is the leader of the Green Party of Québec. He also studies Environmental Science at Concordia.