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Harrison, Hoberg and Tindall

Getting rid of petroleum stocks is a crucial first step for universities Add to ...

Kathryn Harrison, George Hoberg, and David Tindall are faculty members in, respectively, Political Science, Forest Resources Management and Sociology at the University of British Columbia.

Faculty members at the University of British Columbia are voting this week on a resolution calling on the university to divest its endowment from fossil-fuel stocks over a period of five years. UBC students voted overwhelmingly in favour of divestment last year.

In our experience, critics of divestment by universities and other public institutions typically offer three arguments: That moral principles have no place in institutional investments; that those who advocate divestment are naive, or even hypocritical, because they rely on fossil fuels themselves; and that the focus on fossil-fuel producers is misplaced because they are only serving consumer demand. We have considered and reject each of these three points.

First, it’s true that the divestment movement is predicated on a moral argument. Our students do not want their education – an investment in their future – to be funded by profits from industries whose activities are inherently detrimental to that future. The fact that others might be happy to consume or profit from fossil fuels does not detract from that principled position.

Some have argued that while individuals are free to invest their own money according to their principles, public institutions must seek only to maximize returns. We disagree. Universities, churches, and governments make moral decisions on behalf of their communities all the time. We see no reason that investments should be any different. Nor should the status quo be exempt from moral scrutiny. That universities currently seek to profit from fossil fuels is not morally neutral. It is a choice to support activities that their own researchers have concluded are antithetical to ecological sustainability, human welfare and social justice.

Second, it is true that those who call for divestment rely on fossil fuels in their own lives. It is impossible to avoid reliance on fossil fuels in today’s economy, however committed one is to reducing one’s personal carbon footprint. But to argue that by living in the modern world one forgoes the right to call for change is to dismiss out of hand almost all possibilities for social change.

Third, it’s often argued that divestment simply won’t work, because today’s consumers will continue to demand fossil fuels. But that can and must change. Just as tobacco companies worked feverishly to challenge the scientific conclusion that cigarettes cause cancer and to thwart public policies to deter smoking, so too have fossil-fuel companies led the charge against equally certain climate science and policies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Divestment challenges those firms’ social license, just as anti-smoking campaigns did for the tobacco industry. It alerts individuals, as both consumers and citizens, to the impact of their decisions.

That is critical because, at the end of the day, there is no question that divestment is a second-best solution. Government action, ideally via a national carbon price, is the preferred response to climate change.

Unfortunately, government leadership on climate change has been in short supply in Canada. We have seen ten national climate plans over 25 years, none of which has even come close to meeting its targets. In the meantime, Canada’s emissions have increased steadily. Policies have been promised but not implemented, a trend exemplified by the federal government’s recent abandonment of its commitment to regulate emissions from oil production – a sector that accounts for most of Canada’s emissions growth.

Today’s youth are understandably impatient with this leadership vacuum. In creating the divestment movement they are also facilitating the preferred solution of government action. In mobilizing principled rejection of an unsustainable industry, divestment helps to undermine the political influence of fossil-fuel companies and thus to create greater political space for elected leaders to adopt much-needed policies to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

The divestment movement has emerged as a powerful voice for our students’ generation, demanding, justifiably, that their universities, markets and ultimately our elected representatives do better. We stand with them.

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