University of Toronto’s Divestment: What it Means and Why you Should Care

2022-02-23

 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

On October 27th, 2021, the University of Toronto’s (U of T) President Meric Gertler announced that the university would commit to divesting its endowment from fossil fuel industries completely by 2030. This announcement follows a decade-long campaign organized by students and faculty members to pressure the university into taking this action. From students like myself, who were aware of the student-run campaign for the entirety of their undergraduate career but never thought the university would take action, the response has been ecstatic and joyful. Divestment is an important step towards mitigating climate change and dismantling the obstructionist tactics of global fossil fuel industries. However, to the students who were integral to these movements, much of the language and posturing of the announcement has raised a few eyebrows. Questions about the timing of the announcement to divest have come to light, mainly because U of T’s endowment and pension are no longer controlled by one entity. Additionally, an open letter was published in The Varsity, U of T’s main, university fee-funded publication, from the director of the university’s School of the Environment saying that divestment does not constitute “evidence-based climate action” and that there are more steps the university can take to fully decarbonize.

In hopes of finding out more about the ins and outs of university divestment, I reached out to and got to sit down with Rivka Goetz, student organizer and one of the leaders of Leap U of T – the student group that spearheaded divestment efforts after the first divestment petition was rejected in 2015. She broke down the basics of divestment, her thoughts on the announcement, and what steps she wants to see the University take moving forward.

Benjamin Cannon: Pretend I’m 5 years old. Why was it important for our University to divest from fossil fuels? 

Rivka Goetz: Universities, schools, other big institutions have money and in order to make more money from that money and continue being powerful institutions, they do something called investing. They give their money to other people whose job it is to put money into portfolios. Many of those portfolios include investments, giving money to oil, gas, and coal companies – also known as fossil fuel industries. The fossil fuel industry is the most extractive industry on the planet, and is the main cause of carbon emissions that are accelerating the climate crisis at an absolutely unacceptable rate if we want to have any hope [of slowing down the climate crisis].

So, in order to slow down the climate crisis, we need to discredit the fossil fuel industry and make it unacceptable to keep extracting resources from the planet. One way to do that is through divestment. It is one tactic in a much broader movement, but the goal of divestment is to not just take money away from those companies, but also to make a statement from those big institutions – that it is not acceptable to support these industries, that they are holding us back in terms of progress we’re making against the climate crisis, and that the future does not lie within the support of the fossil fuel industry.

At its core, divestment is a social and political problem [regarding] social license. This is about the trust that society has for the fossil fuel industry, and taking that trust away. A lot of people these days are much more aware that the fossil fuel industry is causing the climate crisis, but we have to connect that to the narrative that all of us – in our day-to-day lives in where we bank, in where we go to school, and how our institutions that we support are investing their money – are complicit until we get ourselves out of this reliance on the fossil fuel industry.

BC: What methods did your group and other environmental groups on campus use to pressure the University of Toronto most effectively, but also how did they change over the 10-ish years we’ve been trying to get U of T to divest?

RG: It’s been a long road. I got to U of T in 2018, so I’ve only been around for the tail-end of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. But in 2012/13, a group called Toronto350 started the original fossil fuel divestment campaign. Because of work by student activists in the 1980s [who were] calling for divestment from South Africa [during] Apartheid, U of T now has a system in place for when a student or faculty group wants to call for divestment. You submit a petition, and then the president forms an ad hoc advisory committee. The ad hoc advisory committee spends – [this could vary] in this case, it was a year – researching divestment, fossil fuels, how it would impact the university. At the end of this year, they published an excellent report universally supporting divestment.

Yet, the year after that, President Meric Gertler rejected their report, and rejected divestment. Up to that point, there had been a lot of students involved in this work, but there wasn’t a U of T specific group. In the fall of 2016 – after that initial rejection – Leap U of T formed as this new group in response to the Leap Manifesto, which was gaining a lot of traction at the time. It’s this document about how we as a society need to be moving into a just transition away from fossil fuels, how to deal with the climate crisis in an intersectional, anticolonial way. 

The student group had this manifesto and thought, “How can we apply this on campus?” They dug up this history of the rejection of fossil fuel divestment and decided to restart the campaign. We held rallies, climate strikes, or brought contingents to the major global climate strikes that started happening in 2019. We held a sit-in at the Victoria College Board of Regents meeting when we had a divestment campaign [focused] at Victoria College. We would do art-based events: making big signs and banners to bring to rallies. I remember one of the first things I was involved in in the fall of 2018 was this big chalk event outside of Old Vic (Victoria College’s main building) where we had our petitions and flyers for canvassing, but we were also inviting people to come draw with chalk on the side of the building sending a message to the admin.

We tried to come up with a diverse range of tactics. Our focus has always been the fossil fuel campaign, but we also do work on other issues intersecting with the climate crisis because climate justice has to be intersectional, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonial. Right before the pandemic, we organized a Toronto blockade in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en land defenders, and we did an open mic night fundraiser for other land defenders the fall before that. We’ve done different actions and events that aren’t directly about fossil fuel divestment with the goal being to build solidarity among campus groups and among different movements, and to raise awareness of divestment as a climate issue and a U of T issue.

BC: What are your criticisms of how the University’s divestment letter was framed?

RG: Preface what I’m about to say with all of this: This is a huge step forward and we are doing our best to take it as a win. U of T committing to divest its endowment by 2030 is a really big thing, and I am really excited about that.

[However], the timing of this is very conspicuous. In July of this year (2021), U of T’s pension, which is actually bigger than its endowment, was merged with the pensions of the University of Guelph and Queen’s University in what is called the University Pension Plan (UPP). It’s expected that other schools will join as well. There’s a private corporation called UTAM – University of Toronto Asset Management – that runs U of T’s investments. They controlled, previously the endowment and the pension, [but] as of July, the pension moved out of UTAM’s control because they transferred into the UPP. So now, they’re only controlling the endowment and that’s what they’ve committed to divest, whereas the pension, which is still U of T’s money, is now controlled by this separate board of trustees. This was mentioned in the announcement as a footnote. They said, “We’re gonna divest all of our money by 2030! Little footnote: except the UPP because that’s no longer under UTAM’s control.”

Then there are just other little, nitpicky things. The way the announcement was framed as, “Why are we doing this now? Did you know the climate crisis is really urgent?” The climate crisis has been really urgent for years and years and years, and some of the exact rhetoric and phrasing of this announcement are things the divestment campaign has been saying going all the way back to the original petitions submitted in 2014. For them to say “the climate crisis is urgent and we have to divest” with no acknowledgment of the strong stance the administration held against divestment for so many years – that’s frustrating.

Another thing is they’re claiming this as an example of U of T as a climate leader. One of the other reasons Meric Gertler gives in this announcement is that “now we can divest because it’s much easier to find portfolios and funds that are fossil-free or low carbon. That it’s more practical for UTAM to divest the endowment because it’s easier for them to find options that don’t include fossil fuels. 

But the reason that it’s so much easier is because of the divestment movement. So many other schools and institutions have been requesting portfolios, stocks, and funds that don’t include fossil fuels. The way has already been paved by the previous schools and institutions who were making this decision a decade ago who had to put in the work to find ways to invest without giving money to the fossil fuel industry. To explicitly say in the announcement, “We are doing this now because it’s easier and more practical,” and then to also say it’s an example of climate leadership, is just extreme hypocrisy.

BC: Is divestment enough? What other types of steps would you like to see the university take?

RG: In terms of policy they have been behind on thinking of climate justice. In order to change that, [we have to] think about Indigenous rights and histories of caretaking the land. The “Land Back” movement is a great example of centering Indigenous sovereignty in climate justice. 

It’s hard to know exactly how much power the university has because they’re not very transparent about what their policies and investments are. But we do know that UofT holds investments in a number of ethically questionable industries like arms manufacturing and mining. There’s definitely more work to be done on divestment.

BC: Do you have any advice for conducting outreach when starting an environmental club?

RG: If you’re trying to recruit new students, [it’s important to] have different kinds of events for people to get excited about. One thing we did during the pandemic was have an online progressive clubs fair where we had two dozen groups in a Discord server, and people could hop around between the different channels and check out all the different work happening on campus. For me, Leap U of T has become a form of community, so you gotta have ways to have fun together and not constantly be depressed. It sounds silly, but it’s an important part of not getting burnt out.

Being patient is also important. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from doing this work, and learning about all the work stretching back before I was at U of T is that the administration relies on student turnover to curb any kind of meaningful change. If there is a student group that’s calling for change, they can just push it off or deflect it for a few years – especially because a lot of people don’t get involved in this kind of work until their third or fourth year – then maybe everyone will graduate and stop caring. The reason the fossil fuel divestment campaign was able to keep going is because people rediscovered the campaign, restarted it, and put a lot of work into those relationships and connections with younger students who could keep it going, even during a pandemic.

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While the goal of university divestment is clearly a bureaucratic and hurdlesome process (with complicated outcomes), it is one significant tactic in the battle against the climate crisis. Though institutions hold much of the power and therefore the responsibility to fight climate change, Rivka and her fellow student activists at the University of Toronto have proven that dedicated and value-driven students can truly help push systemic change and hold those institutions accountable. Hopefully, successes like this will inspire further change and drive the divestment movement forward.