No rest until we divest

Divestment campaigns are becoming popular on many campuses, making universities energy leaders for the future

Students are encouraging universities, including Queen’s, to move towards greener energy, like the solar panels pictured above.
Students are encouraging universities, including Queen’s, to move towards greener energy, like the solar panels pictured above.

Jessica Buttery, ArtSci ’14

The CBC has reported that fossil fuel divestment is the biggest student movement in the U.S. in years.

Hundreds of universities and colleges across the United States are campaigning to have their school’s divest from fossil-fuel companies in an effort to combat climate change.

Students are asking their schools to sell their investments in fossil-fuel companies and to reinvest that money into clean energy technologies along with other environmentally and socially-responsible companies and projects. These campaigns are also asking post-secondary institutions to revise their current investment policies to ensure that future investments are responsible.

Like TV sitcoms and Miley Cyrus music videos, the movement has spread rapidly to Canada, with top institutions such as McGill University and the University of Toronto, among others, taking up the cause.

Queen’s currently has $29 million invested in oil sands companies alone, not including investments in the Pension Plan fund. The University has no policies to ensure that their investments are socially and environmentally responsible.

As a leader among Canadian universities, Queen’s should be joining this movement by divesting its own holdings in fossil-fuels and revising its investment policies.

Universities should be places where innovation is encouraged. Fossil-fuel intensive technologies are a thing of the past and it’s time to promote new directions. By divesting from fossil-fuels and reinvesting in green technologies, Queen’s has an opportunity to show its students that it’s ready to promote innovation.

In 2012, Bill McKibben shook the world when his article "Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math" was printed in Rolling Stone magazine. The article explains the science behind the divestment movement in three numbers: two, 565 and 2,795.

Two is two degrees Celsius. At the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, 167 countries, those responsible for 87 per cent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, signed an agreement stating that “deep cuts in global emissions are required” in order to keep the world’s average temperature from increasing more than two degrees Celsius. Even the United Arab Emirates, which makes most of its money exporting oil and gas, signed the agreement.

The next number, is 565 Gigatons. 565 Gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide that scientists have estimated humans can release and still have a reasonable hope of staying below the two degrees Celsius of global warming.

The last number, 2,795, is the most shocking. 2,795 Gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide that’s contained in the proven coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel industry. This is the amount of carbon that the fossil-fuel industry is prepared to burn and on which their stock prices are based.

Fossil-fuel companies are basing their stock prices on burning five times more carbon dioxide than scientists have agreed we can “safely” burn.

If we are to stay within the two degrees Celsius of warming that the majority of the world’s countries have agreed we can’t surpass, then the vast majority of the world’s oil reserves need to stay in the ground. This is the goal of the fossil-fuel divestment movement.

Critics of the divestment movement often argue that although post-secondary institutions have massive sums of money invested in fossil-fuel companies, the financial impact of these institutions divesting wouldn’t break the bank for the fossil-fuel industry.

This argument is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t recognize the impact that stigmatization can have on a company’s survival. Ben Caldecott, author of a recently released report on divestment by the University of Oxford, has stated that “stigmatization poses a far-reaching threat to fossil-fuel companies”. Placing a stigma on a company takes away its social licence. A social licence is the ability of a company to operate in a society and is given when a project receives ongoing approval and broad social acceptance.

Having a university or a group of universities divesting from a company would hinder this social licence.

Pierre Lassonde, former president of Newmont Mining Corporation ― one of the world’s largest gold companies ― said that “you don’t get your social license by going to a government ministry and making an application or simply paying a fee … it requires far more than money to truly become part of the communities in which you operate.”

This is the central strategy of the fossil-fuel divestment movement. The movement isn’t meant to remove the industry’s financial ability to pump oil from the ground.

The movement is whittling away at the broad social acceptance that the fossil-fuel industry has and is therefore impacting its ability to operate in our society. In this way, the movement will keep oil in the ground by removing the industry’s social license to extract the resource.

Universities have a particular responsibility to invest in companies that align with student values and promote a healthy future for their students.

The fact that students, in large part, fund university investments isn’t the only reason for this. Young people come to university with the hopes of improving their future. Climate change is a huge threat to our future.

Even the most conservative organizations agree that the threat of climate change is extremely real, including the World Bank which put out a report entitled Turn Down the Heat ― Why a 4°C Warmer World Must be Avoided.

By investing in companies that are exacerbating the effects of climate change, universities like Queen’s are betting against the future of their students.

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