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“There is No Them, Only Us”: Perspectives Collide at University of Victoria Climate and Divestment Forum

Pressure is mounting on the University of Victoria Foundation’s board to rid itself of investments in fossil fuel related stocks, but, for now, the board is continuing to gather information and is sticking with the investing approach it fine-tuned last year.

Divestment supporters turned out in force Monday evening for a forum on climate change and divestment, organized by UVic and Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions, with speakers ranging from Suncor Energy Inc. vice-president Steve Douglas to Malkolm Boothroyd, a spokesman for Divest UVic, and wild applause for those in favour of immediate divestment showed where the sympathies lay.

If it’s wrong to wreck the Earth’s climate, it is wrong to invest in fossil fuels, Boothroyd said.

“Responsibility means leaving those fossil fuels in the ground. We can’t have it both ways. UVic has got to make a decision and I believe it is UVic’s responsibility to divest from fossil fuels,” he said to a standing ovation from some of the audience.

For panel member Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, the basic question comes down to taking any possible action, including divestment, to stop problems caused by “extreme resource extraction” in the Alberta oil sands.

“If you breathe the air and drink the water, this is about you,” she said.

But supporters of divestment already have it both ways as petroleum products are in everything from lipstick and Lycra to cell phones and paint said Douglas, emphasizing that divestment does not solve climate change. He argued 90 per cent of oil reserves on the planet are controlled by governments so reducing investments in the small percentage of private companies will not help.

The conundrum is that there is no doubt that climate change is real and burning fossil fuels is one of the culprits, but fossil fuels are essential to modern life, he said.

“How do you reconcile those two ideas?” he asked.

“How do we transition our energy system to meet the energy needs of the future in a climate challenged world? … We have to transition in a way that doesn’t dislocate our economy and our social system.”

Last year, UVic professors and other groups demanded that all new investment in companies whose primary interests are fossil fuel extraction, processing and transportation should be frozen and that the administration should initiate a three-year divestment plan.

However, the University of Victoria Foundation, which manages the $370-million endowment fund – used for scholarships, bursaries and research –  wrote to the university’s board of governors in September saying that it would maintain its current responsible investment policies that incorporate environmental, social and governance considerations. As part of the Foundation’s efforts to explore direct involvement in organizations that promote responsible investing, the board voted to become a signatory to the United Nations Principals for Responsible Investment.

Last September $39-million of the endowment fund, or about 10.5 per cent of its assets, were invested in energy sector stocks.

The lack of action is infuriating some of the UVic students, who were gathering names on a petition Monday evening.

“I don’t think the university students are going to stand for anything less than divestment,” said Ida Jorgenson.

“I think this is an issue that is not going to go away. In the end they are going to have to confront it.”

The divestment movement is taking root at universities throughout North America, with active campaigns at about 30 Canadian universities including Simon Fraser University and the University of B.C, where faculty is currently voting on whether to ask the board of governors to change its policy on responsible investment.

However, while some herald it as a positive step to address climate change, others believe it is misguided.

The moral high ground is in climate solutions, not in the drop in the bucket represented by university divestment, said Cary Krosinsky, a Yale University lecturer and co-founder of the Carbon Tracker Initiative.

“If we are serious about (addressing climate change) we need a global initiative. We need a really big action. Divestment doesn’t even come close,” he said.

However, divestment does not necessarily mean a loss for the endowment fund and portfolios that have divested from fossil fuels performed well during the last year, he said.

But for panelist and Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume, the issue is trying to address climate change in a polarized environment.

“Among the delusions is that there’s a them and us. There is no them, only us,” he said.

“This isn’t a theatre. It’s a canoe and we are all in that canoe and we had better start paddling in the same direction or we’re going to tip over and we are all going to drown,” he said.

That means the involvement of government, said Hume, exhorting students to get out and vote.

The theme was picked up by PICS executive director Thomas Pedersen, who challenged the audience to take action on climate change by voting.

“Make this an issue of key political importance in the federal election,” he said.

Image Credit: Daily Collegian via Flickr

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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