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Calling for ethical and financial prudence

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This week Divest MUN publicly released its formal request to Memorial University’s Board of Regents, asking the institution to divest its funds from the top 200 fossil fuel companies.

The 47-page document, available online here, is the result of a year and a half of extensive research and critical reflection by a dedicated team of volunteers across both the St. John’s and Grenfell campuses of Memorial. Among the many reasons for divestment cited in the document are the ever-intensifying local and global impacts of climate change, the harmful effects of the continued use of extraction technologies like hydraulic fracturing, and the financial risk of holding onto fossil fuel investments. We also point to the policy inconsistency of an institution that enacts initiatives aimed at the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously betting financially on the failure of society to reduce those same emissions.

In the document we carefully outline that the potential exists to build a fossil-free investment portfolio at Memorial, and that such an undertaking would be in the best interest of the future financial stability of the institution. We also analyze the risk of failing to take action.

Divestment alone is not a single fix-all solution to climate change, but in this document we show that it is a necessary step in a broader strategy. As individuals we can reduce our own use of fossil fuels, but so long as our institutions invest in a way that promotes dependency upon fossil fuels they will be institutionalizing that dependency. They will, in essence, be betting on our failure to tackle climate change, rather than on our success. 

The consequences of climate change are extreme: The displacement of tens of millions of people worldwide, an increase in severe weather events and the spread of disease, political destabilization, and species extinctions on a level not seen for millions of years, among a multitude of other effects.

Climate change will affect jobs, it will affect economic growth, and it will affect us all no matter where we live. But the effects will not be felt equally by everyone. As we show in the document those who are disenfranchised and marginalized will experience climate change impacts much more intensely, even within our own province. 

Climate change is an immense challenge that we must face together. However, the way in which we address it must not be built upon senseless fear or denial, but upon a practical assessment of the situation — one that recognizes our own potential.

As the Lancet Commission concluded earlier this year, climate change threatens to undo half a century of gains in health worldwide, but tackling climate change also represents the greatest opportunity of the 21st century to improve health globally.

We have the skills and capacity to make the changes we need to make to address climate change. But it is impossible to generate the will to build a new future while we invest ourselves in the dependencies of our past. 

 Are our institutions truly independent, and do they have willpower to do what is best for those they were created to serve?

What we are asking for is, in actual fact, not drastic at all. We are asking for the divestment of Memorial’s funds from the top 200 fossil fuel companies over the next five years, an end to new investments in the fossil fuel industry, and, where possible, for funds to be invested in renewable energy and green economy projects. This specific request is not a call to end fossil fuel industry donations to the institution, nor is it a call to end research at the institution into fossil fuels; it is simply a call for financial and ethical prudence in terms of investment. But the question it raises is a crucial one: Are our institutions truly independent, and do they have willpower to do what is best for those they were created to serve?

Our present dependency on fossil fuels cannot be allowed to serve as an excuse for further dependency on fossil fuels. We cannot lock ourselves into a worldview and a logical fallacy in which nothing we rely upon can be criticized or redesigned. Divestment is a first step in the right direction, and it is a crucial one.

We have formally asked to present on divestment to the Board of Regents of Memorial University this semester, and with this request we hope to begin a serious conversation about divestment. We will also continue to actively raise awareness of the issue of climate change and issues surrounding fossil fuel extraction.

The vast majority of the planet’s known fossil fuels are unburnable if we are to avoid ‘unsafe’ levels of global warming, and how we approach this problem will determine the future of the generations that follow us. We cannot afford to fail to act, and we must act quickly to change our future. Indeed, it is the reality of our very dependency upon fossil fuels that should motivate us to make change now, and not later.

We invite the Board of Regents, and the public, to read the document. We hope to work together toward a renewable and sustainable future. 

Conor Curtis is a social and environmental activist and writer from Corner Brook. He has written articles on topics ranging from international politics and social justice to hydraulic fracturing and climate change, and was a founding member of The 4 O’clock Whistle Magazine. Conor is currently logistics coordinator for the fossil fuel divestment organisation Divest MUN.

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