James Rowe, associate professor of environmental studies at the University of Victoria (UVic), was happy to join a team of students and faculty who approached him for help with a budding fossil fuel divestment campaign in 2013.
“I assumed it would be a slam dunk,” he said. For Rowe, it was obvious that the University’s investments should be aligned with what he and colleagues teach in the classroom about climate change.
Eight years later, the divestment campaign finally won an important victory when the University agreed to divest all fossil fuel holdings from its working capital fund.
The Board of Governors announced earlier this year that the $80 million of fossil fuel investments in the $225 million fund would be shifted to a fossil-fuel free short-term bond fund plus $10 million would be invested to support renewable power projects.
“It’s been a long journey that isn’t over yet,” Rowe said in an interview. “It’s been a tremendous amount of work to get halfway there.”
Now, a bigger challenge awaits the divestment campaigners — the University’s $1.3 billion pension fund, run by a separate board of trustees, and the long-term $431 million endowment fund, controlled by a foundation with its own board of governors, several of which are linked to the fossil fuel industry. “It’s going to be a really hard sell to get them to move towards divestment,” Rowe predicted.
Rowe is one of the many academic staff across Canada who teamed up with student groups over the past decade to lobby for divestment.
“It only takes one persistent faculty member” to make a huge difference, says student Emily Lowan, a divestment leader at UVic who credits Rowe for giving the student campaign credibility and for his persistence during annual student turnover.
Especially notable to her was his role in organizing faculty referenda, one in 2014 showing 66 per cent support for divestment and another in 2019 that showed more than 77 per cent in favour.
Rowe says the results empowered the academic staff association to take up the cause which proved especially helpful in mobilizing support to get two pro-divestment professors elected to the University’s Board of Governors.
One of the two is Monica Prendergast, vice-president of the UVic Faculty Association and professor of drama education. “The students, with protests and a grassroots approach, were wonderful and the faculty group was really organized and consistent in messaging,” she said in an interview. “We’ve made really significant gains.”
Rowe said students and teachers play different roles, both vital. “Students can do things like occupy the Senate room and sleep there overnight — you’re not going to get many faculty who are going to do that,” he said. “But then if we get 200 to 300 faculty signing a letter criticizing their employer, that’s going to get more media attention than students criticizing their university.”
UVic’s policy put the campus “in the pack” of those divesting from fossil fuels, said Rowe. It’s still quite a small pack, with fewer than a dozen universities pledged to divest. He said “the gold standard” is the University of British Columbia which pledged to divest its $1.7 billion endowment fund. In 2017, Laval University was Canada’s first university to pledge to divest. Two years after Laval, the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) announced plans to divest. Pierre Bélanger, executive director of UQAM’s foundation, noted that it was pressure from students and staff that led to the decision.
But not all universities are yielding yet to such pressure.
In 2019, Greg Mikkelson, a tenured professor at McGill University, resigned in protest after McGill’s Board of Governors decided for the third time in six years not to divest itself of investments in fossil fuels. This, despite calls from staff, students and the University’s own senate to do so.
“By now, at most Canadian universities, probably a majority of students and staff endorse divestment from fossil fuels,” said Mikkelson. “Collegial governance requires the people who run universities to honor these democratic mandates.”
He notes that his team’s recent research shows that divestment from fossil fuel is “both a mark of and a contributor to high status among universities”.
Around the globe, about 15% of institutions that have divested are educational, including two academic staff associations in Canada: the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT) and the Windsor University Faculty Association (WUFA).
Divestment campaigns may have gained momentum following a summer of devastating wildfires and record high temperatures, plus the release in August of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). “Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” the report said.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the report is a “code red for humanity.” He called for urgent, decisive, ambitious efforts to stave off worsening global warming. “This report must sound a death knell for coal and fossil fuels, before they destroy our planet.”
Another factor in divestment momentum is the growing number of institutions shedding fossil fuel holdings and incorporating climate risk assessment in their financial and investment strategies.
The nature of divestment arguments has changed in recent years from ethical and ecological to include financial impacts, says Angela Carter, associate professor, Department of Political Science and Balsillie School of International Affairs, at the University of Waterloo.
Carter played a leading role in a “powerful collaboration” among students, faculty, and administration that delivered a divestment policy at Waterloo a few months ago. The policy includes divesting from all fossil fuel exploration or extraction companies by 2025 and full carbon neutrality by 2040.
“It really wasn’t until we got folks involved with the movement who could speak the language of financial losses that we started seeing the university take this more seriously,” Carter said in an interview.
Among those voices was professor Olaf Weber, an expert on fossil fuel financing and divestment who teaches sustainable finance at Waterloo’s School of Environment, Enterprise, and Development. Weber and his students brought loss calculations to the table.
An advisory group of students, professors and members of the Board of Governors’ finance and investment committee, was set up at the behest of then university president Feridun Hamdullahpur who wanted the matter resolved before his term ended.
As the group met over many months, Carter said, “we were seeing major changes like banks that were divesting, insurance companies that were dropping fossil fuels, and people like Mark Carney at the United Nations level as a financial advisor, with really dire messages about the financial risks of fossil fuels. Those were fortuitous announcements.”
By contrast, momentum appears drained at the University of Alberta. Not only has industry pushed back hard, says professor Laurie Adkin, but everyone on campus is reeling from “savage” provincial government budget cuts to post-secondary institutions.
Adkin is a professor in the Department of Political Science and Environmental Studies Program. “COVID took the wind out of us,” she said, referring to postponed plans for teach-ins and other activities to mobilize climate action. It’s no longer a priority in the wake of massive layoffs, and university restructuring. “We now are in complete chaos.”
At UVic, the fight will go on. A key argument will centre on losses in fossil fuel investments. Rowe said UVic’s public equity holdings in fossil fuel companies totaled about $12 million within a portfolio valued at $439 million on March 30, 2020. “Supporting the financial case for divestment, they actually lost $14 million on their fossil fuel investments alone in 2019-2020,” he said.
“In other words, their losses were greater than the total of their current fossil fuel holdings. This can be characterized as a ‘disorganized divestment’ where investments went down because of market losses. We’re asking for an organized divestment plan that aligns with the university’s sustainability principles and protects the long-term health of the endowment.”
The key will be getting allies on board, Rowe said.
“We’ll see,” said Prendergast. “I’d like to be optimistic.”
It’s personal too. “It’s really important,” she added. “I have children. I hope to have grandchildren. Maybe the worst of it I won’t see in my lifetime, but they sure will if we don’t get this under control.”