Divestment discussed by the Governing Council


in Canada, Economics, Politics, Psychology, The environment, Toronto

U of T: the President and the Governing Council

U of T President Meric Gertler’s decision to reject fossil fuel divestment in favour of ESG screening was formally presented to the Governing Council today.

UofT350.org held a rally outside, and Gertler’s remarks were followed both by questions from governors and a five minute presentation from Graham Henry, a second-year law student who has been deeply involved in the divestment campaign and spoke against the president’s choice.

In the questions (which came before Graham’s remarks), most of those who spoke commended the decision. One even thanked the president on behalf of steelworkers in the fossil fuel industry. A couple had limited questions about timelines, and one spoke out clearly in favour of divestment.

I was disappointed that what I see as the central issue never came up: the implications of further investment in long-lived fossil fuel infrastructure. Many people mentioned the 1.5 ˚C warming limit from the Paris Agreement, but nobody drew the contrast with the billions of dollars the fossil fuel industry continues to invest in projects that only make sense if we intend to warm the planet by much, much more. The issue, therefore, is less that the conduct of the fossil fuel industry in the past has been severely injurious to people all over the world (though it has) and more that their future plans are catastrophic for people everywhere, ecosystems, and all the life we know about in the universe.

President Gertler criticized divestment as empty symbolism, less meaningful than having U of T’s secretive and unaccountable financial managers in the U of T Asset Management Corporation adopt some new screening criteria. The symbolism with the potential to be highly meaningful would have been pointing out the reality that the fossil fuel industry has no long-term future, or at least none compatible with planetary safety.

If U of T had come out to say that investors everywhere are behaving dangerously and irrationally by continuing to fund fossil fuel development, it could have had a positive impact all over the world. By saying instead that climate change creates some minor financial and ethical issues which can be addressed through existing processes, U of T is fuelling our collective complacency in the face of a slowly-unfolding but nearly unstoppable catastrophe.

U of T’s investments are burning up the futures of their students, but with this decision such conduct has become just one of many minor factors to be considered by financial experts behind closed doors.


From the perspective of UofT350.org, the group needs to decide what the most plausible strategy is for reversing this decision and what tactics would support that outcome. It also needs to do some deeper thinking about what the group is for, now that divestment has become an even more unlikely prospect. People have very different ideas — for instance, about ‘intersectionality’ as a strategy for success versus a rabbit hole of distraction (this connects to a broader debate about climate change as a leftist versus a pan-ideological issue). There’s also the question of what can be accomplished via protest tactics, particularly when confronting a conservative institution with strong constituencies favouring the status quo and skilled at using cover from superficial actions to placate those who care slightly.

Working on climate change activism generally requires experiencing failure over and over, and in the face of an ever-worsening crisis. How can we do that (a) while continuing to reach out to moderates and decision-makers and (b) changing real-world outcomes, rather than becoming an increasingly radicalized and angry sub-population who are easy to dismiss, ignore, or undermine with trivial policy changes?

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

anonymous April 7, 2016 at 10:07 pm

The only intersectionality thst matters is with aboriginal peoples. That is the dimension of the climate change argument that Canada’s government and the University of ztoronto are really ignoring. They’re the ones with the courage and determination to stop fossil fuel development, and with the legacy of endurance in the face of people with no honor that we need now to confront fossil apologists and enablers.

Milan April 7, 2016 at 11:02 pm

I think there is a strong chance that is true.

Canada’s politicians have neither the freedom, the education, or the imagination to understand what is happening to the Earth.

There are no exact historical parallels, because there has been no prior time in human history where people have dealt with such problems. The fight against slavery has clear relevance.

I also worry about the first world war. It took in a whole continent of the richest people on the planet, convinced that they represented civilization, and then slaughtered them and destroyed their works of art and culture, all for objectives that were ill-judged, racist, pointless, unethical, and in many cases insane.

As the world really starts to fall apart because of climate change, will we do better?

alena April 9, 2016 at 12:06 am

I am shocked that Gertler would call divestment “empty symbolism” in view of his earlier comments to 350.org regarding the credibility and depth of knowledge of the climate situation that your group presented. It is precisely because global warming is so hugely threatening that the wealthy world dismisses it. To avert catastrophic consequences, we need to make a paradigm shift sooner rather than later.
Like all movements throughout history that have changed our society, the climate change movement will have to gather support from various groups of people to form a wider base. I would like to believe that the indigenous people can be a strong backbone of the movement, but they face problems from every direction. So far, they have really been the only effective force against further extraction of fossil fuels and the pipelines.

Milan April 9, 2016 at 6:28 pm

So far, they have really been the only effective force against further extraction of fossil fuels and the pipelines.

That’s the whole ball game: the single most important thing that will determine how bad a situation humanity is in in 50 years is how much of the world’s fossil fuel we dig up and burn. If indigenous peoples are being the most effective at that, they are our most important ally.

I also think it’s essential to get banks to stop financing new fossil fuel projects, and for governments to clamp down on fossil fuel production and use. Unfortunately, governments are timid, controlled to a significant degree by fossil fuel interests, and not yet feeling strong public pressure to change.

anonymous April 9, 2016 at 7:55 pm

If we build this fossil fuel infrastructure, it will end up killing us. Because once it exists, no politician will be willing to shut it down until the ocean has already risen to our knees.

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