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Activists want universities to stop investing in fossil fuels

New student movement is growing at campuses across Canada.

Heavy oil mixes with water in an oilsands tailings pond near Fort McMurray, Alberta.

When individuals or large organizations, such as universities, invest money in oil, gas or coal companies, they’re supporting our society’s reliance on fossil fuels and keeping green energy options on the sidelines. Or so goes the theory that is driving the relatively new, but fast-moving, student-initiated divestment movement in Canada.

“It’s so concrete and simple to grasp,” said Kelsey Mech, a recent University of Victoria environmental studies graduate, speaking of the project’s resonance with students. “This is a strong way to send a super-clear message that we’re no longer interested in supporting fossil fuel use. We want a different economy.” Ms. Mech is the new executive director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, which is heading up the student movement nationally.

The idea of influencing politics through divesting shares in companies is not new: divestment is widely considered to have been a factor in ending South African apartheid, and some Canadian universities no longer invest in tobacco companies due in part to student pressure.

This latest divestment movement got its start in Canada when Bill McKibben, a renowned U.S. environmentalist, gave a keynote speech on the topic at PowerShift, an activists’ “meet-up” in Ottawa in October 2012. His words inspired a group of students from McGill University to draft a petition urging the university to redirect money from the portion of its almost $1-billion endowment that is invested in fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition launched its Fossil Free Canada campaign in January 2013, calling on individuals and institutions to divest.

Today, student-led fossil-fuel divestment groups are active at 40 Canadian universities and about 300 across North America. The movement began in the United States, where 11 colleges and universities have announced plans to divest. There has been one arrest affiliated with the movement, at Harvard University, which hasn’t agreed to divest. The idea is taking hold in Europe, too, and cities, religious institutions and banks are discussing divestment worldwide.

Here, student-led campaigns have tried a variety of approaches. Divest McGill presented the petition with 1,500 signatures to McGill’s board of governors’ Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility; the committee had been put in place to deal with divestment requests during the apartheid era. In May 2013, the committee rejected the petition, saying there was not enough proof that investing in fossil fuel companies causes social harm and that the potential loss of investment money outweighed other concerns. However, the board of governors has since included “grave environmental degradation” as an allowable criterion for divestment.

At the University of British Columbia last January, 76 percent of students who voted in a referendum supported the school divesting from fossil fuel investments. At Dalhousie University, student protestors broke attendance records at the board of governors’ meeting three times in a row, peaking at 100 in April. The student group says it is awaiting an official response from the board.

At the University of Toronto, student organizers of an activist group called Toronto350 have been courting celebrities, gaining endorsement from environmentalist David Suzuki, former Toronto mayor David Miller, and anti-establishment author Naomi Klein, as well as from the faculty association. U of T has struck a committee to look into divestment.

“The president has decided to appoint an ad hoc presidential advisory committee to determine how the university should respond to the brief presented in March by Toronto350,” said Michael Kurts, U of T associate vice-president, strategic communication, in an email. He said the committee comes under the auspices of U of T’s policy on social and political issues with respect to university divestment, and that “after the committee completes its work, it will submit its recommendations to the president.”

At the University of Victoria, some faculty members have joined up with the student divestment movement. “There’s a number of us who teach about the problem of climate change. It’s a problem when the organization we’re a part of finances what we’re opposing,” says James Rowe, assistant professor in the school of environmental studies.

After being asked by students to get involved, Dr. Rowe worked with five faculty members to compose an open letter to the school, gather 200 signatures and present it in April. Now, a group of 10 professors from a range of departments is working together. They put a fossil-fuel divestment motion to the faculty association membership, and 66 percent of voters supported a motion to divest the association’s pension fund of fossil fuels. The fund is run by trustees who must make decisions based on good financial sense and within legislated rules. “But if we can prove they’re putting us at risk financially, they have to act,” says Dr. Rowe.

He and others involved in the movement argue there is a financial argument behind divestment: if governments follow the warnings of environmentalists, fossil fuel companies will be prevented by legislation from harvesting all their reserves. If that slowdown happens, the companies’ share prices will tumble, making them a potentially bad investment in the long term.

Cameron Fenton, who works for the environmental group, says Canadian institutions tend to invest very heavily in fossil fuel companies. “It makes it seem difficult to divest,” says Mr. Fenton.

With its mixed bag of successes so far, this student movement is now talking about escalation: more protests, more pressure. At McGill, organizers want to get more students involved and stage large on-campus protests. Divest McGill also hopes to resubmit its petition in the fall, shore up faculty support and speak individually to members of the board of governors.

But a meeting in May with McGill’s principal didn’t go well for them, with Suzanne Fortier making clear that she did not support the idea. Undergraduate Amina Moustaqim-Barrette says her colleagues are still committed. “We believe divestment is one of the strongest tactics to make large social change happen in the timeframe we need.”

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