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When Sarah Mitchell arrived at McGill in the fall of 2014, she was surprised to see Shell's logo emblazoned on the second page of her student agenda. As a student at McGill's faculty of sustainable engineering, she had assumed that her department had limited ties with extractive industries. She was surprised again when she later realized that McGill was still tied to fossil fuels through its investments. The campaign for divestment from fossil fuels at McGill had started in 2012, when Sarah was still in high school. By the time she arrived on campus, she assumed McGill had divested long before.
Yet even as universities across Canada adopt an aesthetic of sustainability, divestment activists suggest that by eschewing divestment thus far, they've opted out of substantive action on climate change.
Organized worldwide through 350.org, fossil fuel divestment campaigns take different forms, but generally aim to divert the investments institutions have in the top 200 carbon-emitting companies, including BP and Exxonmobil. In the U.K., both the University of Glasgow and the University of Bedfordshire have committed to divestment. Success has not been confined to the U.K.; in 2014, Stanford divested from coal mining companies, and six other colleges -- though none with endowments larger than $1 billion USD have committed to divestment.
Yet as student groups across Canada call on their own schools to divest from fossil fuels, universities have equivocated, emphasizing the sustainability of their campuses and bemoaning financial difficulties.
Late last year, Concordia University claimed to partially divest from fossil fuels by establishing a $5-million fund in support of renewable energies. The university's separate $95-million endowment continues to hold stocks in coal, oil and gas.
As of 2015, no Canadian university has fully divested.
Costing fossil fuels their social license
As with many student-led movements, divestment campaigns have been dismissed by critics in the fossil fuel industry as nothing more than naïve idealism . Some researchers have also suggested that divestment campaigns, focused as they are on investments that directly relate to fossil fuels, would have limited economic impact. The economic tethers of fossil fuels, they say, stretch throughout the economy, including to the sites of investment that some divestment movements have suggested as alternatives.
Yet for the students involved, understanding divestment as a strictly economic tool misses the point.
Compared to private companies or governments, says Malkolm Boothroyd of Divest UVic, universities are a realistic starting point for divestment. Just as importantly, he adds, "Universities are well respected. When a university comes out and says it is not moral to invest in fossil fuels, that creates momentum." Like the campaign for divestment from South Africa in the 1980s or tobacco in the 1990s, the current movement seeks to strip fossil fuels of their social license. For James Hutt of Divest Dal, the purpose of divestment is not just to economically undermine fossil fuels, but to promote the idea that that they're socially unacceptable. "It's morally wrong to benefit from the destruction of the planet," he says. "That's something that very few people can argue with."
Yet universities have argued it, and in this, paradoxically, lies the strength of the movement. After a long campaign, Dalhousie University's board of governors voted not to divest in the fall of 2014. For James Hutt, the negative verdict had an unexpected upside. "It really is a great and beautiful moment for activists, because if [Dalhousie] had voted yes in November that'd be amazing, but it would give a skewed view of how the world really works." Exposing students to the dynamics that govern their institutions, he says, has benefits that go beyond divestment. In this way and others, Hutt says, divestment campaigns are helping students fill in the gaps left by their formal education.
Grooming the next generation of activists
For a movement ostensibly directed at addressing a challenge that goes beyond any one individual or institution, the success of divestment campaigns are perhaps best measured by the impact they have on the students who take part in them.
For Ella Belfer, being a part of divest McGill has given context to her degree in environment and economics. "Being involved in the divestment movements has given me a much broader sense of what's going on," she says, adding that while her classes teach about how climate change is happening, it has been her involvement with Divest McGill that has encouraged her to think critically about why.
In a similar way, Malkolm Boothroyd notes that involvement in divestment has been in many ways the defining feature of his university experience "When I'm looking back at these years what I will cherish strongest of all is the divestment activism that I've been part of," he says. "It's the part about being at school that is the most empowering."
At many Canadian universities, divestment campaigns are among the largest movements on campus, bringing together a diverse swath of students, including those who wouldn't typically be drawn by activism. By directing students at an issue where they can potentially have an impact, say members of Divest UVic, divestment campaigns have tapped into a deep well of energy. "Just because [those students] are not activists on a day-to-day basis doesn't mean that they don't care and doesn't mean that they're not hungry for an opportunity to express their will in a way that could be constructive," notes Boothroyd.
Just as importantly, the varied profile of divestment campaigns translates into the sharing of diverse skills ranging from media training to report writing.
"We're just as much focused on getting a community to support politicized activists to grow our knowledge and skills," says James Hutt, adding that this knowledge doesn't just mean practical skills. It's also about showing young activists that "power concedes nothing without a demand," he says, even at the institutions that are nominally representative of them. With this awareness, students are better equipped to influence the debate both at their universities and beyond them. "It's really been kind of amazing to see our power to shape the conversation," says Ella Belfer.
Change is on its way
At those universities where faculty have joined students in calling for divestment -- such as UBC, where the Faculty Association voted 62 per cent in favor of fossil fuel divestment on February 10 -- it's the students who continue to take the lead. While the support and expertise of faculty is important, says Alexander Hemingway of Divest UBC, "[students] did a lot of work to educate ourselves on all the ins and outs of this issue to begin with…it's been a student-led movement and the faculty leaders on this have been vocal about that too." With faculty and students showing strong support for the campaign in referendums, Hemingway adds, "UBC really has an obligation now to take significant action on divestment."
Ultimately, universities are meant to be governed collaboratively; in an ideal scenario, students and faculty along with administrators are involved in making decisions. Yet in an era over ever-increasing austerity, administrators have dominated the debate, using their mandate of fiduciary duty -- construed in its narrowest sense as the obligation to make the highest possible return on investments -- to drown out other voices. For university students denied their seat at the table, divestment is in large part a radical re-imagining of their role, as well as that of the university: no longer just service users, and no longer as degree-granting institutions, but as equally essential participants in the debate over the values that govern society.
Divestment campaigners know that there are challenges before them, ranging from the complex -- like the power structure of universities -- to the quotidian, such as the need to maintain a stable base from an ever-changing student body. Yet the fact that there's a challenge at all, they argue, is symptomatic of the fact that they're doing something right.
"There's that old line about 'first they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,'" says James Hutt. "And now we're at the point of fighting."
Editors' note: This article was edited from the original to reflect Concordia Universty's partial divestment from fossil fuels.
Moira Donovan is the rabble.ca podcast network intern. She grew up in and attended university in Halifax, where she earned a BA in philosophy from the University of King's College. Post-graduation she moved across the Atlantic, living in France before completing her MSc in philosophy in London in 2014. She currently lives in Halifax.