University of Toronto

Universities produce knowledge, so why are they ignoring the science on climate?

Student activists argue it’s time for U of T to stop funding climate change
Photo: City of Toronto

Growing up in Lima, one of my fondest childhood memories involves a family trip to a small town in the Peruvian highlands. The Huascaran summit, one of the furthest points from the Earth’s center, glistened in the distance. The image of the snow-ridden scenery that surrounded it, however, exists only in memories. I know my children will never be able to see that same glistening terrain.

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More than 70 per cent of the world’s tropical glaciers are found in Peru, yet studies now show that Peruvian glaciers have lost one third of their surface area since 1970.

Peru, despite contributing less than 0.5 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, has recently been ranked third in climate hazard risks by the UK-based Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Data from the IPCC’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios also indicates that Peru will be amongst the most affected by climate change, predicting that temperatures may increase by as much as 1.8ºC by 2020 and 4ºC by 2050.

These changes are likely to displace farmers into urban areas, challenge the ability of highland communities to survive due to extreme winters, and exacerbate the outbreaks of climate-related diseases such as dengue. And, as the glaciers continue to melt, water scarcity will severely threaten the lives of the 3.3 million rural dwellers that live without access to drinking water.

Like Peru, most countries around the globe will suffer from climate change; this is not news for an industry that has known and systematically neglected the repercussions of their actions. The fossil fuel industry has intentionally created doubt on solid science, and fought critically needed regulation at just about every turn.

It was recently revealed that ExxonMobil gave about $30 million to researchers and groups that actively deny climate change or that block efforts to fight it — while internally, their scientists acknowledged it and worked it into their business plans. This is just one case illustrating the degree of social irresponsibility that fossil fuel companies have with regards to climate change. Not only do they carry out extractive actions with the expectation of it being later consumed, they actively lobby government to ensure long-term dependence on their products.

The degradation of the Earth may now be unavoidable, but the extent to which we allow this to continue may depend on our ability to make those responsible accountable for their actions.

This is where divestment comes in.

Students call for divestment
University of Toronto
Milan Ilnyckyj

Divestment refers to the withdrawal of stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are unethical or morally reprehensible. As prominent institutions divest, they demonstrate societal disapproval of an industry’s practices.

It is with this in mind that UofT350.org, a student group at the University of Toronto, has rallied grassroots efforts to address the latent climate change crisis by urging the University to divest its direct holdings in fossil fuels. It is currently estimated that U of T holds direct investments worth over $80 million in a number of fossil fuel corporations.

Campus support for these divestment efforts was evident last week, as 200 students, alumni, and faculty marched in unison towards the University’s Governing Council meeting to show that they want to be part of an innovative and ethical university, not one that invests millions of dollars in the fossil fuel industry. As the meeting adjourned and members of the university administration quickly sneaked through the crowd, professors, scientists, and community leaders continued to give heartfelt speeches urging them to divest.

To me, it’s inspiring to see academics stepping beyond their comfort zone to advocate on this issue. Just last week, more than 210 U of T professors released an open letter urging divestment. Some went beyond that, standing side-by-side with students, giving speeches through bullhorns outside administration buildings.

As an institution that prepares students for the future, U of T has an implicit role in ensuring that its practices do not lead to the exhaustion of that future. The university has a moral and fiduciary duty to act to protect the Earth from climate change. This is in accordance with the University’s own divestment policy, which states that “in specific instances where the University’s social responsibility as an investor is questioned,” they must consider “the injurious impact which the activities of a company are found to have on consumers, employees, or other persons.”

The fossil fuel industry leads to harmful effects in both extraction, as Indigenous communities are displaced and systematically disregarded, and in consumption, as the effects of climate change are ever more pernicious to people across the globe.

The University of Toronto is a hub for the production of knowledge through research. As such, it has a responsibility to act in accordance with current scientific findings, which unequivocally indicate that climate change is an imminent and dangerous reality.

As a new government is welcomed in Canada, and with the approaching COP21 conference, it is now time for U of T to take the lead on climate change. The University of Toronto leads the rankings for post-secondary education in Canada — now it has a unique opportunity to lead in the fight for climate justice.

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