Every year, St. Thomas University’s endowment fund allocates more than $1 million in fossil fuel industry stocks.
STU and many other institutions of higher education teach the science of climate change and the social and economic aspects of environmental degradation and yet they continue to invest in fossil fuels and profit from these industries.
It’s unethical and hypocritical.
Fossil fuels are considered profitable because they power the consumer economy. However, they are one of the largest contributors of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions into the atmosphere. Extensive CO2 emissions send the Earth’s naturally-occurring greenhouse effect into overdrive, trapping too much heat in the atmosphere, resulting in increased global temperatures and climate change.
To combat the current climate crisis, we require a transition away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy-driven economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, has stated that to avoid catastrophic climate change, global heating must be kept to 1.5 degrees C.
Colleges and universities around the world have endowment funds, pots of money invested in a range of stocks, generating profit to fund their operations. Unfortunately not all of these investments are responsible, ethical or environmentally sustainable. Most institutions have large investments in fossil fuel company stocks, including oil, gas and coal. The fossil fuel industry is the largest emitter of the carbon emissions driving the climate crisis.
Divestment is the commitment to withdraw from the funding of planetary destruction.
As institutions of higher learning, universities have an obligation to be leaders in this transformation. The first step is to make sure their operations and their investments are part of the solution, not part of the problem.
The goal of the Divest STU campaign is to hold the university accountable for their commitment to be responsible global citizens. The campaign is requesting time on the agenda of STU’s next board of governors meeting, to propose fossil fuel divestment and work collaboratively towards progressive action at STU. The student-led campaign at STU has gathered unanimous support from the Students’ Union and the Faculty Association. Both groups agree that STU should discontinue funding, and profiting from, the fossil fuel industry.
The fossil fuel industry is one of the most powerful and influential industrial sectors globally because our current economy is largely dependent on oil and gas to operate. It is interesting to consider the situation in New Brunswick specifically. Much of the conflict between students pushing for divestment and board members resisting it, arises from the university’s public image and relationships with certain industries. Many New Brunswickers fear to speak out against the oil industry, as the Irving Oil refinery is central to our export economy. The fossil fuel industry’s significant economic and social power explains why there’s been little action to reduce carbon emissions in the province.
As the climate crisis – and the lack of action– becomes more obvious, more students and other people are becoming activists. Fossil fuel divestment is a global movement uniting activists within institutions working to address and act on the global climate crisis. They are fighting for a transition away from fossil fuels by pressuring their administrations to withdraw from stocks, bonds or investments in the industry. By forcing institutions to withdraw from fossil fuel investments, divestment campaigns aim to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry, create a radical economic shift, and improve social awareness of the climate crisis.
Fossil fuel divestment is a global movement. According to the Fossil Free website, currently 1,156 institutions are committed to divestment, a combined total of $12 trillion – that’s a significant amount of money. As more institutions commit to divestment, this number will continue to grow.
More than 165 colleges and universities worldwide have successfully committed to “immediately freezing any new investments in fossil fuel companies, divestment from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years, and end their fossil fuels sponsorship,” according to the Fossil Free website. None of the successes among campus divestment campaigns were easy, and many student groups are continuing to lobby their school’s administration to commit to divestment.
While many students continue advocating for fossil fuel divestment at their universities, some major successes are worth noting. In September 2019, The University of California (UC) committed to cutting its fossil fuel stocks – equivalent to $150 million of its $80 billion investment fund. UC’s commitment to divest is a huge win for climate activists and the global divestment movement. Institutions with such large investment funds have the power to influence other financially powerful universities such as Harvard and Yale, which have so far declined to divest their multi-billion dollar endowments despite pressure from their respective student bodies and faculties.
Compared to UC’s $150 million divestment commitment, STU’s $1 million fossil fuel investments would clearly have less financial impact on the industry. But while one goal of divestment is to take away economic power from fossil fuels, the movement also aims to create social awareness and consciousness of financial responsibility to the environment. STU deciding to divest from fossil fuels may not be the overwhelming change in the continued profitability of the industry, but it will significantly increase awareness of the climate crisis, and it will demonstrate that STU is “the small university of big opportunities.”
Hannah Moore is a fourth year Environment & Society major at St. Thomas University, the leader of the STU divestment campaign and a researcher on the RAVEN project at the University of New Brunswick.
A version of this article was published on Jan. 28 by The Aquinian.