#Divest: Student leaders champion fight for climate justice

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Just as students were drivers of social change in the divestment campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, one of the key fights for climate protection today is also being blazed on college and university campuses across the world, including here in New Brunswick.

Today and tomorrow, people from across the world will show their love for the climate by taking action in their communities to divest from fossil fuels. Learn how you can join them here.

The Fossil Free Divestment movement calls on individuals, public institutions and corporations to pull financial support from fossil fuel enterprises and invest in the clean, renewable energy sector. Led by organizations such as 350.org and Divest-Invest, its become the fastest-growing divestment campaign in history, with 800 entities (comprising educational institutions, faith organizations, health institutions, charitable foundations, and municipalities) pledging to divest a combined $50B from oil and gas companies over the next four years.

University and college campuses are at the heart of this movement. GoFossilFree.org lists student groups active on five continents, with hundreds registered in the U.S. and more than 20 groups operating across Canada, including at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) Fredericton campus and Mount Allison University (Mt. A) in Sackville.

To mark the second Global Divestment Day events this week, we bring you the story of student divestment groups here in New Brunswick.

Mt. A students during a Divestment Day rally in 2015.

Mt. A students during a Divestment Day rally in 2015 / The Argosy

The Mt. A group had humble origins — beginning as a student project for an Environmental Action course in 2013. From there, the Mount Allison Student Divest Group formed into a full-fledged campaign to uproot any fossil-fuel related investments in the university’s endowment fund investment portfolio.

The group prepared a report laying out the case for fossil fuel divestment at Mt. A. The group submitted the report to the university’s Board of Regents (similar to a board of governors) with a large show of student support behind them.

In laying out its case, the students argued that Mount Allison’s reputation as an exceptional post-secondary institution compelled the board to use its privilege and position to influence global affairs for the better. The report outlined the imperative to act on the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change, and illustrated how global forces are pressuring financial players to realign their activities in order to contain global warming.

The report also touched on the strides being made toward the development of an international framework on climate change mitigation — such as the UN conference in Paris. With the rapid growth taking place in renewable energy technology and clean energy markets, the report cautioned that investments in fossil fuels risk becoming stranded assets in the near future, arguing that the continued spending of capital expenditure on destructive and reckless fossil fuel reserves is not only devastating for the environment; it is financially and economically wasteful.

Divest MTA supporters stage a sit-in outside a MASU council meeting to protest their lack of support for divestment.

Divest MTA supporters stage a sit-in outside a MASU council meeting to protest their lack of support for divestment / Submitted photo

The group distributed small orange square patches — a symbol for the fossil free divestment campaign — to show the Board of Regents that their campaign had the support of students, faculty and community members in Sackville.

During the winter of 2014, the Faculty Union voted to support the divestment initiative.   During this time a motion was also put on the table to the Student Council to endorse the student group’s mission.  The motion did not pass.  Divest MTA will be bringing in a new motion to council this semester, and are hoping council will support it this year. This past January the Board of Regents  decided to conduct a review of the feasibility of adopting a policy on socially responsible investment (SRI), after having read the report on SRI compiled by Divest MTA.  Divest MTA will also approach the senate next week to get them to support the creation of an SRI policy. The SRI policy requires university investments to meet ethical standards on a whole range of levels including respect for labour rights and divestment from fossil fuel holdings. The intent of this policy is to lay the ground work for divestment to be incorporated into the governance of the university. Last week, the Board of Regents decided to consider the idea of an SRI policy through creating a sub-committee to look at it. This semester, Divest MTA is focusing on the fine details of how the bureaucracy of the university works with the aim to getting their proposal all the way through to action.   [Continued below]


Who else is championing the Fossil Free Divestment campaign?

It may come as a surprise that organizations with a social mandate but without the biggest financial clout are leading the way out of a fossil fuel-dominated economy.  In four years, 800 educational institutions, faith organizations, health institutions, charitable foundations, and municipalities around the globe will have divested of $50B from oil and gas companies and other corporate fossil fuel configurations.

What’s more, the business group CERES has upped the ante calling for $36-trillion in global investment in clean energy by 2050. It wants to achieve this by increasing investments incrementally by $1-trillion per year.

These organizations are leading the way and showing other global actors how it is done. One such organization is the Wallace Global Fund, named after Henry Wallace, who was Vice-President to U.S. President Harry Truman for a short time. The Wallace Global Fund (WGF) has devised its own criteria for what’s considered an ethical investment, called the High Impact Investment (HIL). A HII meets the criteria for sustainability and social justice while maintaining a decent return on investment.  Aspects of this investment include “supporting human and labour rights, environmental sustainability, healthy communities and social engagement.”  Since 2015, the WGF has been successful in purging 100 per cent of its investment portfolio of fossil fuel ties. Visionary organizations such as the WGF have been mainstreaming climate action and clean energy investment portfolio realignment.


 

The student divestment group at UNB was the first university east of Toronto to start divestment activities.  It was founded by Richelle Martin in 2013 as part of a class project.

Over the past two years, the group has met with UNB’s president, vice-president of Finance and Corporate Services and the Investment Committee of the Board of Governors. Martin says the Board of Governors has become increasingly receptive to divesting as a result of the group’s presentations. Some of the facts that have been used to make their case include a study from the financial analyst firm MSCI that showed the school’s investment portfolio that excluded fossil fuels performed better than its portfolio focused solely on fossil fuel reserves over a five-year period between 2008-2013. Students also pointed that global subsidy investments in renewable energy produced greater returns than fossil fuel subsidy investments.

These facts convinced the governing body of UNB that divestment is a strategy worth exploring.  

The UNB Student Union has resolved to support Fossil Free UNB’s goal of divesting from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Over the past two years, the group has also promoted the cause by celebrating the Fossil Fools: National Day of Action (held on March 27) and hosting two separate screenings of the divestment mobilization documentary “Do the Math.” 

Avi Diggle, an organizer with Fossil Free UNB, says to expect more divestment awareness events from this year’s Fossil Free UNB group as it will be seeking to widen its base of support throughout campus and the community at large.

The seed for a divestment initiative has been planted at UNB’s neighbour, St. Thomas University, however it hasn’t germinated yet. Student organizers tell us to stay tuned and expect developments soon.

Mt. A students participated in The People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014.

Mt. A students participated in The People’s Climate March in New York City in September 2014 / Eleanor Hannon

The progress of both Fossil Free UNB and Divest MTA gives us cause for optimism that the transition to a post-carbon world is happening, and happening right here in our own province.

The public sanction that divestment creates is alone quite powerful in the effort for a post-carbon world.  And the global push for divestment isn’t happening in a vacuum: the cost of renewables is dropping constantly; climate change is firmly on the agenda of municipal, provincial, national and global governments thanks to the UN’s climate conference last December in Paris; and a flurry of negotiations around climate change mitigation initiatives are happening including carbon pricing, carbon trading and carbon tax.  

The many pieces of the climate justice puzzle are starting to align and the divestment activities in universities are a key part.