First, it was Stanford. Then Oxford and Georgetown, MIT and the University of California, and now, dozens of other student bodies have begun to lay their fossil fuel concerns right at the feet of their respective university boards — especially here in Montreal.
By now, the entire McGill community has seen the rough assemblage of tents erected on campus by the student-led advocacy group Divest McGill. The group claims that McGill’s continued investment in fossil fuel industries is not only unethical, but also hypocritical considering the university’s world-renowned research into climate change.
The concept behind divesting fossil fuel holdings lies in pulling the plug on big oil and coal companies by cutting off their cash flows, in the hopes of slowing the industry as well as its damaging environmental impact. Research has shown that continued removal of fossil fuels from the earth’s reserves would put the planet at risk of exceeding the designate variation limit of 2 degrees Celsius. Yet the divestment movement is so much more than the mere inconvenience of monetary loss — it’s about tarnishing the image of fossil fuel companies in the hopes of opening people’s eyes to the inevitable truth that is global warming.
Divest McGill does not stand alone on this issue — last February, McGill Faculty for Divestment submitted a letter to the McGill University Board of Governors, calling for divestment of the University’s top 200 fossil fuel holdings in order of carbon emissions, with an emphasis on striking tar sand affiliation from the portfolio.
The letter, signed by over a hundred McGill faculty members, stated that: “Continued investment in the companies that actively work against this transition [to renewable energy sources] and profit from continued fossil fuel dependence is not morally tenable for a public institution.”
Some would argue that despite the environmental ramifications of McGill’s fossil fuel holdings, the University has every incentive to pursue smart, profitable investments.
However the McGill Faculty for Divestment’s letter claims that there is “no evidence that divestment of the endowment from fossil fuel companies would pose financial harm to the University,” as fossil fuel investments comprise less than 5% of annual endowment, and endowment comprises less than 1% of the annual operating budget. Moreover, “a study conducted by S&P Capital IQ, and confirmed by further studies, demonstrates that over the last ten years, an endowment reflecting the S&P 500 without targeted fossil fuel companies would have received higher returns than one with them.”
Divest McGill is eager to get this message across to the student body. Nevertheless, despite the group’s consistent presence on campus, a simple look at the arduous history of their fight for divestment means it still may be a while till they reach their goal.
In 2013, the McGill University Board of Governors rejected the first petition delivered by Divest McGill, likely the first vote of its kind in Canada. The decision was made on the recommendation from the university’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility (CAMSR), on the basis of lacking perceived “social injury”. (In comparison, the CAMSR acknowledged social injury of the tobacco industry in 2007, leading to board’s immediate decision to divest).
Throughout 2014, Divest McGill continued to raise awareness for the issue in conjunction with Concordia University, hosting a rally last April in which supporters played “dead” in a mock oil spill. Subsequently, Concordia became the first university in Canada to commit to divest its fossil fuel holdings, soon followed by a winning vote at the University of British Columbia, coupled with a promise of action from the university board. However McGill’s leadership still seems reluctant to follow in other institutions’ footsteps, with Divest McGill noting that Principle and Vice-Chancellor Suzanne Fortier seemed reluctant to discuss the topic as of this summer.
Yet a recent change in the CAMSR’s structure and criteria means that social injury is not the only way to achieve divestment. The body has included “grave environmental degradation” as a further criterion.
For now, Divest McGill hopes their tent occupation of the campus will be enough to convince the board to freeze fossil fuel holdings until the CAMSR’s next meeting in October. Though that seems unlikely, Divest McGill and its supporters are still hopeful that the changes to CAMSR’s criteria will impact the university board’s future divestment decision.
By: Fiona McCarten