Students who prefer to occupy the moral high ground don't have to look far for a cause to rally around. At almost every Canadian university, managers of vast pension and endowment funds direct some of their investments to oil, gas and coal companies. But what makes perfect sense to people tasked with creating revenue for retirees and educators has become anathema to students who insist universities should lead the fight against climate change rather than support polluting industries.
Activists across Canada have pressured administrators to dispose of investments in fossil-fuel companies. On Wednesday, University of Toronto president Meric Gertler rejected the chorus of calls for targeted divestment. While he accepted the need for the university to incorporate environmental, social and governance factors into its financial decision-making, he rightly called for a better way to balance the ethical and financial goals of an academic institution situated in an economy where fossil fuels are inescapable.
Students strive to be idealists and are in an enviable position to voice their hopeful ultimatums without the constraints and occasional hypocrisies of real-world responsibility – we get this, and the world should always welcome challenges to the status quo. But the current wave of demands for divestment from the fossil-fuel companies – with the associated occupation of university administration buildings, as happened at McGill this week – carry more moral fervour than this ambiguous crusade warrants.
Proponents of fossil-fuel divestment place it in the righteous tradition of anti-investment campaigns such as the one that targeted apartheid in South Africa. But the differences are too great for the comparison to be persuasive. Apartheid was singularly oppressive, had to be ended and could be, at a stroke. No one could reasonably talk about an acceptable amount of apartheid – it was a stark, all-or-nothing moral choice.
Fossil fuels are different. Society will need them for years to come, and there is no way for the entire planet to ditch them entirely and immediately without widespread harm. The issue is how to gradually ratchet down fossil-fuel use worldwide. The global warming problem, and the solution, are both matters of degree.