By Cameron Fenton
University campuses have long been beacons of society, exemplifying the striving for a better world. As places where we can ask the tough questions of our time, universities are uniquely placed to challenge injustice.
In the 1980s, more than 155 campuses decided it was immoral to profit from injustice. They pulled their investments from companies engaged in apartheid-era South Africa, and upped the moral and financial cost of operating in that country.
And now, in the face of another moral crisis, a new divestment movement has sprung up on campuses across Canada.
2012 was the year that climate change became a stark reality. It was the 36th consecutive year that temperatures rose above the historical average, breaking dozens of records across the globe. After an unprecedented Arctic ice melt, and one of the worst and longest running droughts in U.S. history, the year was rounded out by Hurricane Sandy, which wrecked the Atlantic Coast from the Caribbean to New York City, and Typhoon Bopha, which pummeled the Philippines.
These events destroyed land, forests and crops. They flattened homes and devastated people’s livelihoods. Profiting from this kind of destruction is immoral.
This is the crux of an emerging movement that is calling on universities and colleges to sell off their shares in fossil fuel companies. Students in Canada are gearing up to join more than 200 schools in the United States in a campaign that the Nation magazine says is “engaging more students than any similar campaign in the past 20 years,” and it couldn’t be coming at a better time.
The global consensus, even for the most intransigent government, is that the planet’s health requires us to cap the global temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. This translates into a global carbon budget of 565 gigatons of CO2 that we can safely emit into the atmosphere. The global fossil fuel industry is planning to burn more than five times that, and spending millions trying to find more. Canada has plans to expand the tarsands to more than three times the size that the International Energy Agency regards as the limit for a 2C world.
This means something very important. Unlike past struggles to change a specific industry practice, like ending sweatshop labour, the problem with the fossil fuel industry is not simply a flaw in their business plan. The flaw is their business plan.
Of course, students are bound to face skepticism and even hostility from some university administrators, and no doubt politicians. We will be chastised for our youthful exuberance, told this is simply not pragmatic, or even outright dismissed, but pulling campuses out of risky fossil fuel investments is the right thing to do, both morally and financially.
Universities across Canada are rightly celebrated for their campus sustainability work, but as they’ve gone green over the past decades, CO2 emissions have risen by 40 per cent, and continue to rise. Building a sustainable campus that is bankrolling and profiting from climate change is a Pyrrhic victory at best.
Moving away from fossil fuel investments may not only benefit the climate, but also campuses. According to one research report prepared on the topic, the theoretical risk on returns if campuses divest from the fossil fuel, mining and some other energy industries — far more than what we are calling for — is less than 0.005 per cent. In fact, some analysts even argue that the risks of the kind of unchecked fossil fuel resource use are far higher than we are planning for.
More than this, returns on investments are not the only indicator that campuses should look to in judging the stability of their endowments. These funds are heavily subsidized by alumni and public donations, something that requires no small amount of good will. In fact Unity College, the first campus in the U.S. to announce full divestment, has noted a marked increase in donations since the announcement.
Divestment alone will not stop climate change, but by going after the economic power and social licence of the industry that is fuelling the climate crisis, we might have a chance to build a more just and sustainable future.
If campuses aren’t places to build a better world, what are they?