A tenured professor is resigning after McGill University refused to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry.
Gregory Mikkelson said he could no longer stomach working for the Montreal academic institution because its decisions conflict so drastically with his environmental ethics research there.
“I teach that reversing our ecological devastation and establishing ecological harmony require necessary social and economic changes,” Mikkelson told HuffPost Canada.
“I’m going to undergo a big transition in my life. Canadian society will also have to undergo a big transition to meet our climate and environmental goals in general.”
McGill’s board of governors voted against a motion in December that would’ve required the university to divest the school’s $1.7-billion endowment fund from the fossil fuel industry, including selling company stocks. About 8.7 per cent of the total fund is currently invested in the energy sector, according to a board report.
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“The whole point of divestment is to keep the vast majority of fossil fuels in the ground. If we don’t it’s game over for the planet,” said Mikkelson.
The recommendation to divest had come from the school’s senate, with overwhelming support from students and faculty, Mikkelson said. The student group Divest McGill has made two similar requests in the past seven years, both of which were also rejected by the board.
“There’s an important association between true democracy and environmental sustainability,” said Mikkelson.
McGill spokesperson Cynthia Lee declined to comment on Mikkelson’s resignation, but said the university has taken steps to reduce the carbon footprint of its investment portfolio, including its stake in some fossil fuel companies. The board also accepted a motion to increase investments in clean technology and renewable energy.
“Adopting a more carbon-conscious investment approach complements McGill’s far-reaching climate change and sustainability goals,” Lee said in a written statement. One goal is for the university to be carbon neutral by 2040.
McGill graduate Bronwen Tucker, now a research analyst at the advocacy group Oil Change International, said the university’s strategy amounts to “tinkering on the edges” and misses one of the main purposes of divestment, which is making a statement.
“It’s really reprehensible given the context we are living in and horrifying how slowly (universities) have acted,” she said from Edmonton.
Perhaps most famously, in the 1970s and 80s, U.S. universities stopped investing in companies that did business in South Africa to protest the apartheid system. While the movement didn’t cripple the country’s economy, it did contribute pressure to end the regime.
Institutions like McGill don’t have enough invested to actually impact the fossil fuel industry, said University of Toronto Prof. Jessica Green, whose research focuses on climate governance. But together they could help change how Canada approaches it.
“Divestment raises the profile of our collective complicity in climate change,” Green said. “It revokes the licence of fossil fuel companies to operate without impunity and builds a movement that gets young people involved.”
The divestment movement has had limited success in Canada.
Laval University was the first Canadian post-secondary institution to pull its money from fossil fuel companies in 2017.
The Université du Quebec à Montreal ceased all investments in coal, gas and oil last year, followed by Concordia University. The University of British Columbia announced in November it would divest $380 million from fossil fuels, although students and professors demanded the school commit its entire $2 billion investment portfolio to sustainable investments.
But others have sidestepped the issue, including the Universities of Guelph, Ottawa, Toronto and Calgary, and Simon Fraser and Dalhousie Universities.
Research suggests that over 100 years portfolios divested from fossil fuel companies make just as much money as those invested. That’s because fossil fuel stocks don’t tend to outperform other sectors.
Mikkelson, whose last day at McGill is Feb. 1, said his resignation has gained media attention across Canada, more so than any other time in the past seven years he’s been advocating for divestment.
His phone is now “ringing off the hook.”