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How Alumni Can Help Students Divest From Fossil Fuels

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DIVEST FOSSIL FUELS
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Protests and petitions were never really my thing. I've never owned a Che Guevara t-shirt and my haircut would be entirely appropriate for a police officer. But the more I read about climate change, the more I felt like I was part of a society and an economy going in the wrong direction. Specifically, plummeting downward. And unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life avoiding eye contact with children and mirrors, I knew I had to do something more than cast an occasional ballot.

About this time I became aware of the fossil fuel divestment movement. Students from over 20 universities across the country are attempting to convince their schools to divest their endowment funds from the top 200 fossil fuel companies within five years, and immediately freeze any new investments in those companies. And I thought, hey, I have a couple of university degrees, maybe I can help.

But first you might be wondering why exactly these students and I are so worked up about climate change and fossil fuel companies. The answer boils down to 3 numbers:

2 DEGREES CELSIUS

Every country in the world has formally agreed to limit the Earth's temperature rise to two degrees, and recently agreed in Paris to aim even lower.

900 GIGATONS

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) scientists estimate is the maximum amount we can burn to have a decent chance of keeping warming under 2C.

2860 GIGATONS

The total CO2 contained in the proven reserves of fossil fuel companies. So if we're serious about keeping warming under 2C, most of that needs to stay in the ground.

BUT not only are fossil fuel companies committed to burning all of those reserves, they're spending billions looking for new ones. New UNBURNABLE reserves. So by investing in fossil fuel companies you're essentially placing a bet on how long they can fool people.

This "carbon bubble" is openly acknowledged by big players in the financial community, including Bank of England (and former Bank of Canada) governor Mark Carney, the IMF, the World Bank, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and a coalition of 70 investors worth $3 trillion.

But this isn't just a financial issue, it's a moral one.

New investigations (available here and here) have concluded that ExxonMobil (and other fossil fuel companies) understood the science of climate change and its implications by the mid-1980s, and then spent decades systematically funding climate denial. That's some soul-boggling evil right there.

Exxon is now being investigated by New York's attorney general, and it could be the start of years of lawsuits like those against the tobacco industry after they were caught covering up the health effects of their product.

The fossil fuel industry is not some benevolent group of companies competing on a level playing field to make an honest buck. It's heavily subsidized, subverts democracy by blocking laws that protect the environment, and funds climate denial lobby groups (there's lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of evidence for this).

HOW WILL DIVESTMENT HELP?

The goal of divestment is to revoke the social license of an industry whose business model is not compatible with a liveable climate. Divestment activists are simply saying "It is immoral to profit off of climate change. Period. Exclamation mark."

BUT...

  • Isn't divestment hypocritical since we all use fossil fuels every day?
  • Isn't divestment pointless if it doesn't bankrupt fossil fuel companies?
  • Isn't shareholder engagement the best way to drive change?

All reasonable questions, and all answered by The Guardian in this handy article.

Even a former CEO of Shell called divestment a "rational approach," and it must be at least somewhat effective since the industry feels threatened enough by the movement to attack it.

OVER 500 INSTITUTIONS VALUED AT $3.4 TRILLION HAVE DIVESTED

These include colleges and universities, churches, charities, cities, and others. However...

NO CANADIAN UNIVERSITY HAS JOINED THE FOSSIL FREE MOVEMENT

And some have explicitly refused, including Dalhousie, Queen's, UBC and U of T.

(UPDATE: Just hours after I posted this letter uOttawa became the first Canadian university to commit to divestment. Congrats to the hardworking students of Fossil Free uOttawa!)

In their reasoning for their decision, the Dalhousie Board of Governors cited their "fiduciary duty to generate reasonable risk adjusted returns from a diverse portfolio of investments."

But is the primary duty of a university to "generate reasonable returns?" They claim to be preparing students for the future, but how can they claim to do that while profiting from an industry that is actively working to make that future uninhabitable?

Easy, they pretend, and hope the calls for change grow quieter. But in fact, the calls are only growing louder by the day.

AND HERE'S WHERE YOU CAN HELP

A university's most valuable asset is its reputation, and its alumni network is a crucial part of that reputation. As alumni, you have the power to influence the behaviour of your alma mater if enough of you act together.

THE ASK: ADD YOUR VOICE TO THOSE CALLING FOR DIVESTMENT

Sign a petition to urge your alma mater to divest from fossil fuels, and send the message that you will withhold any donations until they do.

School-specific petitions:

McGill University

University of Toronto

Dalhousie University

Queen's University

Mount Allison University

Create a new alumni petition for your alma mater, or send any existing ones, to divest@gofossilfree.ca to add it Fossil Free Canada's list of alumni petitions: gofossilfree.ca/alumni.

You can also sign Fossil Free Canada's alumni pledge to withhold donations.

I've put my degrees where my mouth is and ripped up my Dalhousie and Queen's degrees to protest their refusal to divest (watch the videos of the rip-ups here and here).

Thanks for reading, I hope you're inspired to help!

This letter was originally published on Medium.

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