Push for fossil fuel divestment gains momentum

| November 20, 2014
Photo by Stephen Thomas, Nov. 2014

Environmentalists worldwide are pushing investors to stop putting their money into fossil fuel investments, and it looks like that push for divestment is gaining momentum. 

A case in point: the first Fossil Free Canada convergence. November 7 to 9, over 120 students from 15 universities across Canada came together in Montreal for the convergence, where they planned future collaborations and learned new skills to apply in their divestment campaigns.  

The convergence followed the release of the latest summary report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which reports that following the current path, "warming is more likely than not to exceed 4°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100," leading to risks such as "substantial species extinction" and "global and regional food insecurity." 

Divestment campaigns target the fossil fuel industry as the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the biggest stakeholder in a high-carbon economy. A report prepared by Toronto 350 states that "the world's proven reserves of coal, oil and natural gas would produce 2,795 gigatonnes of CO2 -- nearly five times as much as it would be safe to burn" to stay below 2 degrees celsius of warming. 

The Canadian Youth Climate Coalition (CYCC) and student groups from McGill and Concordia organized the event. Kelsey Mech, Director of the CYCC, spoke of the convergence as an opportunity "for people to connect in a smaller setting, build relationships, and strengthen the national movement." 

Both seasoned and brand new campaigners brought their skills to the convergence, with Mech noting that four new university campaigns started in just the last three months.

Photo by Stephen Thomas, Nov. 2014

Photo by Stephen Thomas, Nov. 2014

Presenters over the weekend said that it is imperative for divestment campaigns to draw attention to and be accountable to the communities who are most affected by the fossil fuel industry -- primarily Indigenous, low-income and racialized communities.

"Divestment isn't just a symbolic gesture," said Crystal Lameman, a member of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6 and a campaigner with the Sierra Club, to her community surrounded by tar sands extraction in Alberta.

"Divestment alone won't stop extreme resource extraction, but it's an important part of the change," added Lameman.  

Convergence speakers Heather Milton-Lightening and Clayton Thomas-Muller are co-directors of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute. They challenged attendees to think about what kind of investments "create life rather than destruction" and lead to the future they want to see. 

Convergence workshops provided participatory training on interacting with the media, using non-violent direct action and identifying campaign allies. 

In a workshop examining divestment and re-investment strategies, financial planner Tim Nash acknowledged the obstacles facing the divestment movement in Canada, where the majority of the Toronto Stock Exchange is comprised of energy, mining and banking stocks. He identified another challenge that is particularly relevant in working toward fossil fuel divestment in the university environment: the tendency for risk-adverse university officials to favour the status quo.

Nash, however, demonstrated that some green investments have recently outperformed those in coal and the tar sands and can contribute to a more diversified portfolio. He argued that "current measures of volatility ignore systemic risks," including potentially unburnable carbon assets, leaving endowment funds "highly exposed."  

The last year has seen the fossil fuel divestment movement quickly gain momentum. There are now almost 30 campaigns in Canada and hundreds globally. Fossil Free Canada demands that institutions "immediately freeze any new investment in fossil fuel companies" and divest from fossil fuel equities and bonds within five years. 

Their message is taking hold. Several high profile announcements on divestment were made around the time of the People's Climate March in September. The Rockefeller family pledged to rid their $860 million fund of any fossil fuels holdings, while the Church of Sweden announced that their portfolio is now completely fossil free. 

Photo by Stephen Thomas, Nov. 2014

Heather Milton-Lightening, Photo by Stephen Thomas, Nov. 2014

"We see a financial risk in owning fossil fuel companies. Their value consists to a large extent of fossil fuel reserves that risk losing value since they cannot be extracted if we are to have a liveable planet," said head of responsible investment at the Church of Sweden Gunnela Hahn, in a press release on September 23. 

While no Canadian universities have as of yet committed to divestment, some institutions in the United States and the U.K. have made the pledge, including the University of Glasgow this October. Convergence attendees expressed hope that their institution would be the first university in Canada to come on board in time for the Global Divestment Days, Feb. 13-14, 2015. Tresanne Fernandes from the University of Toronto linked the movement to student democracy saying, "Students' voices should be heard and represented at the university." 

With an election on the horizon, this Canada-wide movement hopes to leverage campaigns on individual campuses to effect political change at the national level.

"We want to use divestment to elevate the youth voice and the issues of climate change and climate justice in the 2015 election. For divestment to contribute to the fight against pipelines and in support of frontline communities," said Mech.

Jennifer Mills is a PhD student in Environmental Studies at York University and an organizer with the Mining Injustice Solidarity Network and Divest York. 

Photos by Stephen Thomas, Nov. 2014

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