Illustration/Samantha Chiusolo
Illustration/Samantha Chiusolo

In a brief written for the U of T Governing Council, Toronto350 has called for U of T to immediately commit to the principle of divesting from fossil fuel companies. It also demands that U of T make no new investments in the fossil fuel industry, wind down its investment in the 200 fossil fuel companies it is currently invested in, and within one year divest from Royal Dutch Shell.

 

Toronto350 is a local branch of 350.org, an international group that participates in numerous campaigns. The group’s name refers to what climate scientists argue is a safe atmospheric CO2 ratio in parts per million (current global levels are above 400).


In contrast to everyday environmentalist campaigns that encourage more personal responsibility, 350 emphasizes the role of political stagnancy in the continuation of climate change. In order for the U of T divestment motion to succeed, however, Toronto350 may have to convince voters that this campaign is not particularly political.


The brief to the Governing Council reveals the complex nature of U of T’s relationship to taking political positions. On the one hand, the University’s Statement of Institutional Purpose makes “a resolute commitment to the principles of equal opportunity, equity and justice.” On the other hand, it is also U of T policy not to make politically-motivated investment decisions, unless there is perceived academic consensus on an issue as targeted by a divestment campaign. U of T has complied with divestment motions in the past, such as withdrawing holdings from Apartheid South Africa and the tobacco industry.

 

In the brief Toronto350 lists numerous arguments in favour of divestment in an economically pragmatic manner. The brief cites reports that come up with monetary costs incurred by the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, while also warning that current investments in the fossil fuel industry are based on the incorrect belief that fossil fuel extraction can continue indefinitely.

 

The brief also goes over many of the tolls that climate change will take on the planet. It notes that climate change could affect agricultural production by altering precipitation cycles and triggering more droughts and wildfires. Climate change will also cause sea levels to rise, which could in turn lead to the mixing of saltwater and freshwater-aquifers and flooding.  


Climate change could also bring about an increasing number of health issues and increasing death rates, especially in the third world and among various indigenous peoples. Numerous species are threatened by climate change, including salmon, which will face thermally-altered migration routes and an increasingly acidified ocean.

 

One of the most pressing threats of climate change is that it is a self-perpetuating problem. Warmer weather can trigger certain tropical plants to release CO2. The melting of permafrost soils leads to the release of CH4 (methane), a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

 

Perhaps the most important research cited in the document is science historian Naomi Oresekes’ meta-study on climate change research. Oreskes looked at 928 peer-reviewed articles relating to climate change and found that all of these pieces either accepted the theory of anthropogenic climate change or took no position.

 

The brief also notes that many fossil fuel companies openly acknowledge some of the costs inherent to their business and argues that when U of T divested from the tobacco industry it did so in part because even big tobacco acknowledged how dangerous their product is.

 

In short, Toronto350 argues that as far as the University should be concerned, divestment from the fossil fuel industry should not be considered politically contentious. Academics, including U of T researchers, governments, international institutions and even voices in the fossil fuel industry acknowledge that climate change is a real, anthropogenic phenomenon.

 

That does not mean, however, that persuading governing council to vote in favour of divestment will be easy. When discussing the length of the brief, Toronto350 President Stuart Basden said that “Fossil Fuels permeate our society in a way that Apartheid and tobacco did/do not.” This illustrates the odd way in which the reality of the problem of anthropogenic climate change may not be politically contentious, but actually doing something about this problem is.

 

Toronto350 has collected endorsements from a range of individuals including U of T professors and high profile environmentalists including David Suzuki and Naomi Klein. Many student organizations have endorsed the campaign as well. For some it was an easy decision. According to the Victoria College Students’ Administrative Council President Jelena Savic there “was relatively little discussion [over whether to support the brief], given the fact that all of the students on the council are conscious of the environmental impact of fossil fuels, and eager to see the University reinvent itself and its investment portfolio to reflect an interest in a sustainable future.”

 

For other student organizations, however, the decision did not come as easily, as they did view divesting from fossil fuels as a contentious political decision. U of T Environmental Action (UTEA), a new, campus-activist-organization has been working to get student organizations to endorse Toronto350’s campaign.


One UTEA activist tried to get the Trinity College Meeting to endorse the campaign. The endorsement passed by only one vote. The activist afterwards explained how she was told by a dissenting voter that the TCM should not take political stands. The dissenter also reportedly emphasized that this view on politics was a point of contention between the TCM and UTSU.

 

The UTSU, for that matter, has also endorsed fossil fuel divestment. According to UTSU Vice-President Equity Yolen Bollo-Kamara, the UTSU board of directors had a lengthy debate, but ultimately, nearly-unanimously endorsed 350’s campaign. Bollo-Kamara argued that UTSU members are students at “one of the largest and most influential post-secondary institutions in North America, [and that] we must acknowledge our direct contributions to climate change and the symbolic effect of our perceived inaction.”

 

In response to the campaign, President Gertler will decide whether to strike an ad hoc committee, which would present recommendations in response to the brief.

 

There are no doubt complex financial questions that will influence governing council’s vote. Indeed, Badsen feels that one challenge his campaign faces is to show that “divestment makes financial sense as well as ethical sense.” The brief does do a good job of making this case. It points out that U of T is not overly dependent on its fossil fuel assets, and as Badsen re-emphasizes, “Many international institutions—including the World Bank and United Nations—are now recognizing the strong likelihood that much of the world's fossil fuels are stranded assets and are contributing to the Carbon Bubble, a financial bubble similar to the 2008 housing bubble that is potentially larger and more far-reaching.”  

 

Ultimately, however, governors will have to find ways to justify yes or no votes. It is for this reason that the question of whether choosing to divest from fossils fuels means taking a controversial political stand, could play a decisive role in this debate.

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