05/02/2014 02:55 EDT | Updated 07/02/2014 05:59 EDT

Can University Of Victoria Lead The Way On Divesting Fossil Fuels?

"If you can believe it, my faculty pension has no ethical screens. We can invest in arms, tobacco, and so on. It's outrageous, really. But of all places in society, the university is well-positioned to lead, to find creative solutions to these complexities."

Professors at the University of Victoria (UVic) are demanding the school's administration freeze all new investment in fossil fuels and initiate a three-year divestment of all fossil fuel holdings.

The university endowment fund has approximately $21 million currently invested in fossil fuels.

In an open letter addressed to Lisa Hill, chair of the University of Victoria Foundation and copied to university president Jamie Cassels, faculty members voiced concerns over the ethical and financial viability of fossil fuel investments, noting "the growing North American movement, led by students, to see their universities act as moral leaders for their communities by disinvesting from such companies." The full list of signatories can be seen here.

Kelsey Mech, Divest UVic student organizer and chair of the UVic student society, said such strong faculty support for the campaign comes as a surprise. "I am floored. I am so blown away," she told news site DeSmog Canada.

"Our goal was to have 100 faculty sign on by April 30. We just blew that target out of the water as we are already at 160, representing just shy of 20 per cent of faculty," she said. Nearly 2,000 UVic students have signed a petition in support of the divestment campaign.

"I've been organizing on campus at the University of Victoria on various environmental issues for the past five years, and I have never seen something light up the campus like divestment has," Mech told DeSmog Canada. "I'm beyond thrilled, and so grateful for everyone who is willing to take a public stand for our collective futures."

In their open letter, faculty members state "the science is clear" on human-caused climate change, which is expected to cost the Canadian economy $5 billion per year by 2020. The adverse effects of a warming planet, they note, has already killed thousands and creates vulnerable environmental refugees. The burning, transportation and refinement of fossil fuels, they add, perpetuates these negative impacts.

"We should not support, let alone profit from, companies responsible for this suite of effects."

The divestment campaign will be presented to the board of the endowment fund and the board of governors at UVic this summer.

Environmental studies professor and letter signatory Jessica Dempsey said faculty support for the initiative is growing: "Every day there are more signatories as more faculty become aware of the issue."

"I think both students and faculty are looking for ways to seriously engage and confront the climate crisis, in a time when we have no governmental leadership, and no signs of it on the horizon," she told DeSmog Canada.

'It's complex'

Although there has been some resistance on campus, says Dempsey, the majority of it has not been against divestment in principle.

"There is pushback on campus, of course," she said. "But what is surprising is how much of that pushback -- at least so far -- comes not in terms of outright disagreement, but rather is focused on the difficulty of implementation. A common refrain is that 'it's complex.'"

The UVic endowment and pension investments are managed by trustees with a fiduciary duty "that legally enshrines them to maximize returns," Dempsey explains, leading to questions about how these and similar funds can account for ethical considerations as well as their legal mandate to maximize returns to the beneficiaries. Pensions, she notes, are governed separately from the university's endowment.

According to Kelsey Mech, "The university has asked fund managers to consider environmental, social and governance factors when deciding on investments, but there is no formal or mandatory screening process to follow."

These kinds of investment "complexities" should be confronted, according to Dempsey, and the university is an ideal place to do so.

"Surely fiduciary duty needs to be revised, or reinterpreted so that we don't retire to an increasingly uninhabitable planet," she said.

And concerns surrounding investment in fossil fuels bring up a host of other considerations for Dempsey, especially in terms of employee pensions.

"If you can believe it, my faculty pension has no ethical screens. We can invest in arms, tobacco, and so on. It's outrageous, really. But of all places in society, the university is well-positioned to lead, to find creative solutions to these complexities." She clarified that her UVic pension is not, as far as she knows, invested in arms or tobacco, but there is no screen in place that would prevent the pension trustees from doing so.

She added, "Who is better placed than UVic law faculty and students to innovate and propose concrete changes to currently unethical but legal mandates like fiduciary duty to maximize returns?"

James Rowe, another professor at the School of Environmental Studies and lead organizer for the campaign, said there is also a strong financial case to be made for divestment.

"The current valuation of oil companies includes huge reserves of fossil fuels that cannot be burned if humanity wants to avoid run-away climate change. When policy making inevitably catches up with the scientific consensus on climate change, share prices for oil companies will be negatively impacted, generating losses for investors," he said.

Investment in fossil fuels "conflicts" with the university's environmental leadership role on campus, the open letter states, including the housing of the influential Pacific Institute for Climate Studies.

"As with the movement against apartheid in South Africa, students have challenged the university to fulfill its role as a leader on issues of justice. And as with the anti-apartheid movement, this movement will not retire until it has succeeded," the letter reads.

Divestment, according to Mech, is not only practical, but gives institutions like the university a productive way to move the climate conversation forward.

"Divestment is an extremely impactful way to shift the narrative around our reliance on fossil fuels and to force people to recognize the urgency of the climate change crisis," she said.

"When major institutes, like universities, choose to divest from these dirty industries it sends a strong message that we are no longer willing to accept the status quo and are demanding a transition to a clean energy future," she said.

More than 300 other North American universities are currently home to a divestment campaign. Recently the Simon Fraser University Faculty Association voted to create a fossil fuel free option in their pension and the City of Seattle voted to divest from fossil fuels.