A group of students at Memorial University’s Grenfell Campus in Corner Brook is about to bring the growing worldwide fossil fuel divestment movement to Newfoundland and Labrador.
For over a year Michaela Pye, Lindey Touzel, Sara Langer, Conor Curtis and a handful of other Grenfell students have been meeting and planning. Their goal? To pressure Memorial University to cut its ties to any oil and gas companies in which it is investing money.
“[We’ve been] informing people, just trying to educate people on what climate justice is, what divestment is, and why it’s important for the university,” Pye, a first-year Environmental Science student from Deer Lake, told The Independent in a recent interview alongside some of her campaign colleagues via Skype.
“And we’ve got a pretty solid buildup for such a small campus, of people who are knowledgeable about what divestment is — and they’re supporting the movement,” she continued.
Fossil Free Canada, an organization that provides support and online resources for divestment campaigns in Canada, explains that divestment “simply means getting rid of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally ambiguous.
“Fossil fuel investments are a risk for investors and the planet — that’s why we’re calling on institutions to divest from these companies,” the website says.
Four members of Divest Grenfell traveled to Montreal last month for the country’s first Fossil Free Canada convergence, and now they say they’re ready to launch their campaign here at home.
“Just being able to [get] encouragement and advice from people whose campaigns are a lot further along than ours was really beneficial, and kind of creating that frontline solidarity across the country was really important,” Pye explained.
“For me personally, it was all about figuring out how we’re going to get this off the ground in a really successful way, and just trying to build it further.”
They’re concerned that the fossil fuel industry continues seeking out new reserves of oil, coal and gas, ignoring urgent warnings from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—comprised of the world’s top climate scientists—that if we continue on our current path, by 2045 global warming will exceed two degrees Celcius above pre-industrial levels.
The target, adopted by the countries within the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, marks the point at which the effects of climate change would include immensely greater extreme climate events, sea level rise, and human conflict as a result of diminishing resources, including fresh water reserves.
A burgeoning global movement
Divestment — or cutting your investment ties to companies complicit in morally questionable or illicit activities — has been used in recent years against the tobacco industry, to pressure the Government of Sudan to end the genocide in Darfur, and perhaps most famously in the 1980s to compel South Africa’s apartheid regime to end oppression of the country’s black population.
The logic driving the movement is simple, 350.org founder Bill McKibben explained in an article for Rolling Stone last year: “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”
“The fossil fuel industry…has five times as much carbon in its reserves as even the most conservative governments on earth say is safe to burn – but on the current course, it will be burned, tanking the planet,” he wrote.
Fossil fuel divestment began on the campuses of American colleges and universities as a response to the industry’s inaction on climate change. The movement swept across the country and in the past year has seen a “rapid increase in institutions pulling money out of fossil fuels,” according to the US Fossil Free campaign, which claims $50 billion has been divested so far.
Joining the global movement are churches and faith groups, educational institutions, municipal governments and even members of the financial elite who are turning their investments toward the clean, renewable energy industries.
In September the heirs of American oil tycoon John D. Rockerfeller announced they were joining the movement. Rockerfeller Brothers Fund President Steven Heintz said the move was a “moral responsibility,” adding “business as usual is just simply unacceptable.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed the audience at the same press conference, held Sept. 22 in New York City ahead of the informal global climate talks convened by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
“We have heard the scientists’ warnings that we cannot maintain a livable temperature and climate for humanity if we burn more than a fraction of the fossil fuels already discovered. Yet, in the pursuit of short-term profits, companies spend half-a-trillion dollars a year searching for more fuel,” he said. “Imagine if all that money was invested in clean energy to fuel our lifestyles and industries, affording us power and prosperity without threatening the entire world, especially its most vulnerable people.”
Today there are upward of 400 American colleges and universities with active divestment campaigns, with 10 institutions, including Stanford University, having already divested their endowments from fossil fuel companies. Likewise, at least 25 American municipalities have committed to divestment.
If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. – Bill McKibben, 350.org
Glasgow University recently became the first European university to divest from fossil fuels.
And last month Montreal’s Concordia University became the first Canadian university to announce it would divest from fossil fuels.
The University of British Columbia’s faculty association recently voted to hold a referendum at the end of January that could see the school divest $100 million worth of stocks from the fossil fuel sector.
On Nov. 12 about 170 University of Toronto students and faculty marched in protest of the school’s investments in fossil fuel companies like Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell. An ad hoc committee at UofT is currently reviewing the divestment petition and will make a recommendation to the school’s Governing Council within a year of its first meeting.
And just last week, members of the Mount Allison Faculty Association voted unanimously to support Divest MTA, the group of students pressuring the Sackville, NB university to divest from fossil fuels.
Few movements are without resistance, however.
Late last month Dalhousie University’s board of governors voted against divesting its holdings in fossil fuel companies.
The decision was made despite a concerted effort by Divest Dal to have the university’s “endowment fund divested from the worlds top 200 fossil fuel companies.”
George McLellan, head of Dal’s board of governors’ investment committee, asked: “If we turn our back on a number of companies, why would they put money in here?”
The fossil fuel industry, too, isn’t responding kindly to the burgeoning global movement. Industry reps are aggressively lobbying at the Conference of Parties (COP20) global climate summit underway in Lima, Peru.
“They’re the same ones who are driving the climate crisis and the same ones who are stopping us being able to solve it,” Pascoe Sabido of the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) said in a recent interview with Democracy Now from COP20. “So we need to get them out of this process. That doesn’t mean just the U.N.; this means climate policy in general.”
The CEO’s new report, “Corporate Conquistadors: The Many Ways Multinationals Both Drive and Profit from Climate Destruction”, details how the fossil fuel lobby is influencing governments’ policies on climate change.
“So much of this influencing happens at a national level,” Sabido said. “So many governments come here with their positions already made up, because the likes of Shell and Chevron have already done their lobbying at home. Why is Canada pushing CCS, carbon capture and storage, so much? It’s because of Shell.”
Memorial University, fossil fuels and the provincial economy
The Divest Grenfell group knows the importance of being prepared when they bring their demands to Memorial University.
“We want to make sure that we had the research ready, and we want to make sure that we had the knowledge base, of course, to be able to bring forward a good case for divestment before we [go] to them,” said Curtis, a Historical Studies major who hails from Corner Brook. “So at this point a lot of it has been research into divestment and in general introducing divestment as a concept. So now it comes down to talking to administration and giving them the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully they’ll say, ‘We’d really like to do this — it seems like a good idea. It makes sense. It’s a reasonable argument.’”
But the group also acknowledges the university’s integral role in facilitating the fossil fuel industry’s development in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Obviously the connections between the university and the oil and gas industry are quite well-known. We have the Chevron Chair in Petroleum Engineering…and we have obviously a very strategic oil and gas partnership dating back to the early 2000s,” Curtis explained. “So we know that there’s very close connections there in terms of vested interests, but not necessarily direct investments. So that’s something that we’re still working on, would be the investments themselves.”
MUN’s 2014 President’s Report lists private sector funding to the university at more than $28 million last year, second only to federal government funding. It’s not clear how much of the private funding is coming from the fossil fuel industry.
A 2007 power point presentation by former MUN President Alex Meisen on the university’s Oil and Gas Development Partnership lists total funds raised for fossil fuel-related research and education for the period 2003-2010 being, at the time, $88.3 million.
We should be preparing for the future rather than waiting for it to happen and hoping for the best. – Conor Curtis, Divest Grenfell
Still, the group is optimistic that Memorial University, as the province’s leading institution for innovation and critical thinking, will recognize the opportunity to position itself as a forerunner in the movement to a clean energy, sustainable future.
“At this point climate change is no longer deniable,” said Curtis. “If you really want to keep profiting off of it, one way or another we’re going to have to move to a green energy economy anyway. People are going to have to invest inside of that and they’re going to have to move their investments out of fossil fuels.
“We know we can’t keep burning stuff,” he continued. “So we can either lead or we can follow in that respect. And obviously we’d like to lead, rather than be somebody who’s following a trend after the fact. We should be preparing for the future rather than waiting for it to happen and hoping for the best. It’s really not practical to maintain these investments.”
The campaign will be launched at the same time a government-appointed committee will begin to review the prospect of allowing the oil and gas industry to use fracking, a controversial form of fossil fuel extraction, in the province. Fracking injects large quantities of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure to break shale rock formations to release previously inaccessible reserves of oil and gas. Among a host of risks fracking poses to people, wildlife and the environment is the uncertainty as to how much methane—the most potent greenhouse gas—will leak from the wells once they have been decommissioned. They would need to be monitored and maintained for decades and centuries into the future.
Memorial University’s Associate Vice-President of Research Ray Gosine was appointed chair of the panel. In an interview with The Independent last month Gosine, who oversees research funding coming in to the university, including from oil and gas companies, said assessing the risks of fracking in the context of climate change is “not what the panel’s about.”
The challenge ahead
Lindey Touzel said the group needs to continue building support among faculty and students to strengthen the movement as it engages the university administration.
“There’s been quite a supportive response from people we’ve talked to, who are interested in seeing the importance of divestment and climate justice,” she said. “But there are definitely those who are more skeptical…and a lot of it for us is just understanding where that skepticism comes from and trying to build a stronger argument to why we actually need divestment.”
Pye said the myth that climate change isn’t real, or that humans have no impact on it, is the cause of much of that skepticism.
“You always get those people who’ve heard something at some point in time, that climate change is not real, it’s not a thing, and they’ll just feed off that as well — people who just don’t want to look into it,” she said. “And it’s just trying to get them to understand that, you know, this is a problem. And you can be part of the solution.”
The group said once they learn where Memorial has investments, it will determine which companies “are not responsible investments,” and then “show [MUN] the risk factor that comes with investing in those companies,” said Pye.
“And then we’ll ask them to divest from the companies that [aren’t] responsible, and…their [response] could be that they don’t want to do that, that they don’t want to change their investments, that they don’t think the argument is valid enough — and that’s when we would have to reassess our [strategy] and figure out a different way to address the situation,” she continued.
“Or they could come back and say, ‘You’re right, these are not responsible investments; we should definitely look into [investing in] clean energy, look into local investments instead.’ Or they could say, ‘We think this is a good idea but we need more information on it,’ and they may request that we give them alternatives to invest in, which we will probably provide anyways.”
Beyond a shift in its support for an energy industry at the root of the climate crisis to one that offers a solution to the crisis, Pye said that in divesting from fossil fuels Memorial University has a unique opportunity “to diversify what Newfoundland has been about.”
“It’s an opportunity to focus on new solutions, to be forward-thinking and innovative in what we want to do in the province,” she said. “So I think it’s exciting. It’s going to be hard for a while because we do rely so heavily on oil and gas, whether you just think about people who go work away in the tar sands, or you think about our local [offshore oil industry].
“So I think it’s going to be really interesting but also a really great opportunity to see what emerges from moving away from fossil fuels.”
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