Queen's: rethink divestment decision

Queen’s stance on fossil fuel divestment misses the point

Courtenay Jacklin asks Queen’s to act on its pledge to “walk the talk” on fossil fuels.
Courtenay Jacklin asks Queen’s to act on its pledge to “walk the talk” on fossil fuels.

According to Queen’s University, we should no longer be held accountable for the consequences of our actions. Therefore, the oil and gas industry is responsible only for the extraction of fossil fuels, not their contributions to climate change.

In December 2014, Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC) asked the University to divest from fossil fuels on the basis that companies involved in the extraction of coal, oil and gas cause social injury. The Principal’s Advisory Committee responded with a report in which they disagreed and recommended against divestment.

Divestment won’t stop climate change. I doubt anyone involved in a divestment campaign today believes it’s the stand-alone solution to the world’s climate crisis. Moreover, after speaking with people from both sides of the issue, I think a lot of good could come from working with fossil fuel companies to reduce emissions and encouraging the transition to renewables rather than naming them as an adversary.

However, there are several flaws with the Principal’s Advisory Committee’s report on fossil fuel divestment. Putting aside the numerous personal connections committee members have to the oil and gas industry — including a former director of InterOil — it seems that they missed the main point of QBACC’s argument.

I agree with the committee that “societal development as we know it today would not have been possible without fossil fuels,” but a desirable future isn’t compatible with further exploitation of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. Climate change is linked to increased flooding, drought and violent storms, altering global water resources and creating freshwater shortages. Climate change leads to the increasing prevalence of disease and contributes to smog and air pollution, which lead to additional health concerns. 

The committee states that, “Many forms of economic and industrial activity may have negative, though lawful, impacts on society” and that, “Such negative impacts in those circumstances should not be viewed as injurious impacts.” 

Although the writers acknowledge the negative impacts of fossil fuels, their choice to separate the industry from the phrase “social injury” portrays the fossil fuel industry as less harmful than it is.

Their emphasis on lawfulness seems like an attempt to excuse the industry’s contribution to real environmental damage.

There are many examples of lawful but negative actions, including exceptions in Canada’s Oceans Act allowing experimental drilling for oil and gas within one of Canada’s Marine Protected Areas. Additionally, the National Energy Board is allowed to skip the authorization stage outlined in the Species At Risk Act when issuing certificates to construct a pipeline through critical habitat for endangered species.

However, instead of disregarding the negative aspects of lawful actions, a better solution would be to reconsider whether the action itself should still be considered lawful.

The committee tries to justify the University’s investment in the fossil fuel industry by arguing that these “industries impart significant benefits to consumers, communities and the country as a whole.” Many people benefit from the fossil fuel industry and many even stand to gain from climate change — it’s been suggested that climate change could boost Canada’s economy. 

However, economies in the vast majority of Asia, Africa and South America would suffer, further contributing to global wealth inequality.  Even when the benefits for some Canadians are considered, the negative consequences far outweigh them.

It’s been predicted that climate change could displace tens of millions of people. The number of people employed by the fossil fuel industry is a small fraction of this. A gradual shift within Canada’s energy sector will create new employment opportunities while displacement will only create new climate refugees. What Canada truly stands to gain from the over-exploitation of our fossil fuel reserves is the future responsibility to help the countries we’re screwing over. 

One of the conclusions reached by the committee is that “divestment is an ineffective tool for Queen’s to use in addressing issues associated with climate change.” Of course it is, if it’s the only tool you’re willing to use. 

When a similar divestment request was made at the University of Toronto, President Meric Gertler recognized the opportunity to explore both fossil fuel divestment and the University’s role in addressing climate change. The U of T Advisory Committee recommended targeted divestment from companies whose actions show disregard for the international targets set at COP21, the UN Climate Summit in Paris. 

Although there’s still some leeway in U of T’s response, their recommendation for targeted divestment recognizes the current demand for fossil fuels while also acknowledging the need to transition to alternative energy sources.

In the end, while Queen’s Advisory Committee is still grappling with the “interpretive difficulties” of the term “social injury,” other universities have moved past these technicalities to address the real issues.

The committee formally acknowledges that “it is generally accepted that climate change is a critical issue of the 21st century” and that “we need to act now to avoid potentially catastrophic effects.”

Queen’s has committed to “walking the talk” on climate change, but they still haven’t passed the Climate Action Plan they agreed to create six year ago.

QBACC's next campaign is "What will Woolf do now?" It's time for the university's actions to speak as loudly as its words.

Courtenay Jacklin is a fifth-year Biology major and a member of Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change.

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