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MUN faculty support divestment, president defends big oil

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The fossil fuel divestment movement in Newfoundland and Labrador got a significant boost last week when Memorial University’s faculty union voted to support divestment at MUN.

On Tuesday about 70 faculty members supported a motion calling for MUNFA to stand behind Divest MUN—a group of students and faculty who initiated the divestment campaign at Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook in 2013—in its effort to encourage Memorial University to divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The motion also calls on MUNFA’s representatives on the university’s pension committee “to explore similar measures with respect to Memorial’s pension funds,” and for MUNFA itself to divest any fossil fuel holdings in its portfolio. Only three members voted against the motion.

Divest MUN member Conor Curtis said the MUNFA decision “says a lot” about how people feel about climate change and the urgent need to begin the transition from carbon-intensive fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, which account for a large percentage of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, to a low-carbon economy based on clean, renewable energy.

“I think it’s very important that we saw a lot of different people in academia back our efforts to get Memorial to divest,” said Curtis, a student at Grenfell. “I think that’s extremely significant in terms of taking that stance that those investments are unethical.”

Climate crisis sparks global movement

Carbon dioxide concentrations in the Earth’s atmosphere currently sit at around 400 parts per million and the climate has warmed about 1 degree Celcius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. In its 2013 Fifth Assessment Report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded with 95 per cent certainty that increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to economic and population growth “has led to atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide that are unprecedented in at least the last 800,000 years.”

The consequences of just 1 degree warming are being felt worldwide, including here in Newfoundland and Labrador, where Labrador is warming at twice the global rate and the ocean is warming and acidifying, putting aquatic species and the province’s fisheries at risk. But global warming disproportionately affects the poorest nations of the world, with more—and more intense—climate events leading to displacement, hunger and disease. The World Health Organization estimates 150,000 people per year die because of climate change.

The global divestment movement, which began on the campuses of American universities and colleges and has since spread around the world, is based on the premise that it is “ethically inconsistent to profit from an industry whose entire business model…is grounded in planetary harm,” MUN professor Robin Whitaker and Grenfell professor Gerard Curtis wrote in a co-authored op-ed for The Independentlast week, making the case for divestment. On Thursday the Church of England became the latest institution to join the roughly 800 other significant global investors in divesting from fossil fuels.

MUN’s “good ethical investment policy”

On Thursday MUN President Gary Kachanoski told The Independent that while he respects MUNFA’s decision to support divestment, the union is “one part of a group that sits on our investment panel.” He also said the university’s investment committee has an ethical investment policy it follows.

“I think it is a good ethical investment policy, and I would expect that [the committee] would continue to follow that ethical investment policy,” he said.

Asked if he thought investing in fossil fuel companies was ethical, Kachanoski did not give an answer, instead reiterating his support of MUN’s “ethical investment policy”.

Gerard Curtis, who has helped facilitate the MUNFA divestment campaign, said he has never heard of MUN’s ethical investment policy, and that he is eager to learn how the policy defines ‘ethical’, given that last year he discovered MUN was investing in the tobacco industry, which has been the target of other divestment campaigns.

“I think it is disingenuous to say we have an ethical investment policy…when [MUN’s pension fund] was, as of last year, still investing in British American Tobacco,” said Curtis.

British American Tobacco (BAT) is one of the largest tobacco firms in the world and is currently implicated in the largest civil class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

Curtis said he discovered MUN’s investment in BAT in the university’s pension fund portfolio under an asset management’s equity fund.

“I would have serious reservations on how ethical those so-called ethics are given we are a smoke-free campus trying to eradicate the scourge of cancer caused by actions like smoking,” he continued. “I think this alone demonstrates that our ethical investing policy needs to be re-examined.”

Curtis said the fact the pension committee was unaware of its investment in tobacco last year “shows a problem with oversight of the funds and what they are invested in.

“This indicates the problems too with co-mingled funds like this,” he added. “It takes a bit of work to tease out how deep the fossil fuel investments are, for example.”

Last week the International Federation of Medical Students, which represents one million medical students worldwide, sent an open letter to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust saying that “fossil fuels are the new tobacco,” and that the two large charities have a moral obligation to divest from fossil fuel companies:

Of currently listed fossil fuel reserves 80% must remain unburned to keep surface temperature warming below 2C above pre-industrial levels,” they wrote. “Climate change threatens health both directly through frequent flooding, heatwaves and natural disasters, and indirectly by worsening food insecurity, conflict and mental health. Fossil fuels also directly harm workers and local communities by toxic exposures, air pollution and local environmental degradation. A transition to renewable energy generation and low-carbon, active transport would prevent millions of deaths worldwide from cardiovascular, respiratory, and other diseases.

Revealing the extent of university investments in climate change

Divest MUN recently obtained a list of MUN’s investments, which reveals the university has holdings in a number of fossil fuel companies like Enbridge Inc., Husky Energy Inc., Chevron Corporation, Exxon Mobil Corp., Encana Corp. and Canadian Oil Sands Limited.

“We know that the vast majority of our fossil fuel reserves are unburnable if we are to prevent ‘unsafe’ levels of climate change — and we put ‘unsafe’ in quotation marks because there really isn’t a safe level,” said Conor Curtis. “There is no way to ethically invest in fossil fuel companies because it’s an investment where you’re betting on a future in which they will burn those reserves, which is inherently unethical.”

Robert Sweeny, a MUNFA representative who has been on the university’s Pension Committee for 10 years, explained that two years ago the committee “accepted the general principle of ethical investing as a guide to what we do,” but has not “adopted a specific policy statement.

“It is on the agenda for the committee and we have made considerable progress in sketching out what it might look like,” he said.

The Independent received an emailed statement from MUN Acting Associate Director of Communications David Sorensen, affirming Sweeny’s statement:

The university pension plan’s statement of investment policy and objectives includes the following Statement on Socially Responsible Investing: The Board and the University Pensions Committee recognize the importance of investment practices that are appropriate from the perspective of environmental stewardship, social responsibility and good corporate governance. Where these factors are material to the overall performance of the Fund, they will be taken into consideration when reviewing the investment policies and practices of the investment managers.

Sorensen confirmed by phone that this statement was non-binding.

In other words, despite Kachanoski’s praise for MUN’s “ethical investment policy,” the university has not yet adopted an official, binding policy to which all its current investments adhere.

As such its existing investments in British American Tobacco and a host of fossil fuel companies have not yet stood the test of the Pension Committee’s impending investment policy.

Questions about Memorial University’s obligations

Kachanoski said it is the government’s will that MUN fulfills its “special obligation” to the people of the province by researching and supporting offshore oil development.

Memorial University President Gary Kachanoski. Photo: MUN.ca
Memorial University President Gary Kachanoski. Memorial University.

While he understands humans are causing global warming and acknowledges the need to transition to a low-carbon economy, the MUN president said oil is a “significant part of the province’s budget and a significant part of the economic growth of the province, so it makes only sense that we would play our role on the research and development side in supporting that, so it can be done safely, properly and efficiently, to the benefit of the province as any other natural resource would be done by any other province.”

Conor Curtis said Divest MUN’s campaign is not calling for an end to all fossil fuel development in the province tomorrow.

“But I think we do have to start making shifts through things like divestment to start planning for a future that is going to be very different economically and very different in terms of the way we generate energy,” he said.

It has been widely noted that one of the divestment movement’s strengths is its ability to generate public discussion around climate change and the fossil fuel industry’s role in contributing to global warming.

Given what we now know about climate change, however, Gerard Curtis said Kachanoski’s responses to The Independent’s questions about fossil fuel development, climate change and the university are disconcerting.

“His reasoning that the university’s ‘historical’ mandate of serving the province means a need to invest in oil exploration and an expanded search for fossil fuel resources rings hollow, particularly in light of the morality involved given the 150,000 people who are dying from the impact of climate change caused by fossil fuels each year,” he said in an email, responding to Kachanoski’s comments.

“These are fuel reserves we know, scientifically, cannot be expanded—or even utilized to the degree of the known reserves we have today—without causing more deaths, and further dramatic climate change. [Kachanoski’s] perspective is thus supporting, against the scientific evidence, a mandate for increased climate change by saying the historical mandate of MUN trumps science and trumps morality—taking on the position of climate change denial—with the real message being short-term monetary gain.”

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“This positioning on the president’s part, and his PR team, shows how we are truly a ‘Petro U’ in the pocket of the oil companies, seeking short-term profitability over long term financial responsibility — with stranded assets and the carbon bubble threatening those very funds he is responsible to protect,” Curtis continued.

“We thus abrogate our moral and ethical responsibility to the citizens not only of this province that our very mission statement advocates—those who live in rural areas like Norris Point and in Labrador, which are already suffering from the impacts of the climate change in both livelihood and health—but of the global responsibilities we as educators and intellectuals have that our mission statement also calls upon us to have responsibility for.

 The hypocrisy of this is that these statements of the president go against the very mission statements he claims to be upholding.  — Gerard Curtis, Professor

“The irony and hypocrisy of the university’s position is that we are constantly trying to recruit from that global community and speak to a ‘vision’ that is global and international while retreating into xenophobic stances to protect, above all else—and as the province has done historically—the merchant classes and the one percent, who literally grease the university’s pockets.

“The hypocrisy of this is that these statements of the president go against the very mission statements he claims to be upholding — that are declared on the Office of the President’s own web page,” Curtis continued.

“It declares an obligation to the people of the province first over that of businesses that exploit and harm those very people. In fact I can find no place where petroleum businesses are mentioned in the mission statement, let alone needing to be protected as a vested interest of the province or Memorial’s mandate. These are business interests sitting on the very Board of Regents, a board whose responsibilities are to advocate and protect these mandates over self-serving monetary interests which have historically stymied and exploited this province.”

Conor Curtis said Divest MUN is currently drafting its submission to the university which will formally request that MUN divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies outside the pension fund.

“We’ll give the Board of Regents the benefit of the doubt, that they will take the time to consider the request and to look at it and at the arguments we are making,” he said. “I think investment is a shrewd decision financially, and it’s definitely an ethical decision to make. So really the question is, why wouldn’t you divest?”

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