People from the University of Victoria promoting a divestment campaign

University of Victoria's divestment campaigners. \ Photo from gofossilfree.ca.

This past Friday, Canadian Youth Climate Coalition National Director and activist Cam Fenton appeared at the ‘Just Education?’ conference hosted by the Waterloo Public Interest Research Group (WPIRG) at the University of Waterloo to discuss the history, roots and tactics of fossil fuel divestment campaigns.

The conference aimed to spark conversation about the role students can have in the fight for social change. Featuring a workshop titled, “Divesting from Fossil Fuels: The Canadian Campus Movement for Climate Justice,” participants were encouraged to ask questions, challenge ideas and learn more about student-driven campaigns.

The goal of campaigns like Fossil Free Canada is to influence universities and other institutions to filter their investments in non-renewable resources the same way most companies in North America won’t invest in industries such as pornography or tobacco. Advocates believe that universities pulling funding out of fossil fuel industries, responsible for 60 per cent of our national carbon emissions will influence other investors to do the same, thus scaling back Canada’s overall contribution to climate change. While divestment is the end goal, Fenton believes that creating a lasting mentality of moral responsibility along the way is just as important.

Guests at the workshop learned that divestment campaigners aren’t shy to name specific oil companies, giving a face to their opponents and making it easier for institutions to identify which investments are being targeted.

Fenton elaborated, explaining how big oil companies have “spent millions of dollars undermining democracy, fighting the reality of climate change and literally buying out governments. We want to challenge their social reputation, which is the one thing they can’t buy. Their biggest fear is losing their social license.”

Kai Reimer-Watts, a Fossil Free Canada representative at the University of Waterloo, spoke about students’ connection to this issue: “[it] shouldn’t matter if you’re in Environment or Engineering or Arts – we need you to put your voice out there. It matters to everyone.”

Fenton went on to point out the adverse financial impact of investments in fossil fuels, “Their share price is based on the promise that all of their reserves must be profited upon,” but since approximately 80 per cent of Canada’s known fossil fuel reserves have been deemed unburnable according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 report, this promise is on unstable ground. Burning these buried resources would break the ‘carbon budget’ to keep global warming under 2°C, an already dangerous value. “There is an over-evaluation of a resource that is set to collapse. The loss of these investments will ultimately fall onto the shoulders of the students, making post-secondary education even less accessible that it already is.”

There is also the question of sustainable economics, “It’s becoming clear that we should not be investing in unrenewable resources,” says Reimer-Watts, “Fossil fuels get reliable returns, but it isn’t a plan that works out for us in the long run. Renewable resources are what we need to invest in to ensure long-term security, but also to remain competitive on the world’s stage.”

Divestment campaigns have been well received by students across the nation. “Seven [international] universities and colleges have divested,” confirms Reimer-Watts, while the movement in Canada is still fairly young. Currently there are 35 campaigns around Canada, the most recent of which being St. Francis-Xavier University. The movement has been most successful at schools where student organization is strong, such as on the West Coast and in Montreal.

For Fenton, what “builds power” in the Fossil Free movement is when student unions and societies, faculties and alumni join forces with a campaign, as this makes it harder for administration and decision-makers to avoid addressing the issue. These “little victories” add up and create a unanimous voice for a campus’ campaign.

Fenton has found that a negative response to divestment campaigns from university administrators often “galvanizes” action. The University of British Columbia reportedly said, ‘no’ to divestment before the campaign had even started. Now, the students of UBC have pulled together a student-backed mandate against divestment to be presented to their president. It is this type of determination that is showing up at universities all across Canada, and will likely continue as more institutions make the choice to divest and reduce our carbon footprint.

“We are the first generation to live the impacts of climate change and the last generation to do anything about it,” says Fenton.

To read more about fossil fuel divestment campaigns, check out our article “Banking on Investment,” from the Heroes issue. To see how far we’ve come in the campaign against fossil fuels, see our previous blog post from The Green Student.

Kelly is an Academic Outreach intern at A\J. She in her second year of Environment & Resource Studies at the University of Waterloo where she also studies Drama and French. 

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