On Thursday, January 25, Divest McGill held an information workshop on divestment and environmental justice titled “Divest 101.” The information session, which took place in the ECOLE house, covered the history of the Divest campaign at McGill, its mobilization, as well as its current and future projects. Speakers included organizers Nina Scheer, Annabelle Couture-Guillet, and Jed Lenetsky, all of whom spoke during a question and answer period following the event.
Fossil fuels, climate, and McGill
Scheer began their introduction explaining how fossil fuels, such as oil, gas, and coal, impact the environment, and why it is more important to target fossil fuel companies in their campaign than other industries.
“Sometimes you end up with revolving doors, where politicians sometimes become lobbyists, and back and forth like that,” said Scheer. “For example, Exxon spent millions of dollars on the U.S. presidential election in 2012. This shows that fossil fuel companies have a strong impact on democracy.”
According to Scheer, the wealth fossil fuel companies have generated can be attributed in part to large subsidies from governments, further emphasizing how fossil fuel companies have the financial capacity to regularly fund biased scientific research that serves their own interest.
“That is noteworthy, because as McGill [students], we would want to step away from that lack of integrity,” said Scheer.
“Exxon spent millions of dollars on the U.S. presidential election in 2012. This shows that fossil fuel companies have a strong impact on democracy.”
Divest has long campaigned McGill to divest from its holding in fossil fuel companies, in order to move away from a carbon-based economy. As of 2015, McGill received around eight per cent of its endowment from companies like Suncorp and Embridge.
Scheer believes that it is possible for McGill to cut ties with fossil fuel companies and invest in others. “It would not be a crazy barrier for them, logistically,” they asserted.
During the discussion, Couture-Guillet, a U2 Sustainability, Science & Society student and organizer at Divest, explained the hierarchy of impacts for change, and how while individual efforts to mitigate climate change are useful, they might be too little too late if institutional shifts are not put in place.
“There are different levels of change,” Couture-Guillet said. “There is obviously the individual level, that relates to all the little things we can do. I can decide to bike to school, I can decide to not eat meat. But if that was a mathematical function, there would be an upper bound to what we can do with that. We need to move further, to governmental levels, and eventually to international levels”
“But there’s also this in-between level, that is institutional,” they clarified. “Institutional is where McGill fits in. It’s in using the fact that I’m a student in a university that has such a big reputation, hierarchy of impacts of power,” Couture-Guillet said.
Divest organizers shifted that discussion to Divest’s main goals, the main one being removing fossil fuel companies’ social license.
“It’s not about financially crippling the fossil fuel industry,” said Scheer. “It’s about putting people with political clout, ethical clout such as universities, at the frontline to make the shift to a cleaner economy happen faster. It’s more political and social than financial, as a tactic.”
“We really believe in intersectionality,” continued Scheer, commenting on Divest’s communications with other groups on campus that promote social, political and environmental causes. “Divestment is just one tactic in a huge problem that needs all kinds of solutions to happen at once.”
The Long Road to Divestment
Founded in 2013, Divest has sofar submitted two petitions to the McGill administration requesting that it divest on grounds of environmental and social responsibility, both of which were rejected by the university for what they felt was a lack of evidence. Since then, the student group has engaged in class demonstrations on National Divestment Day and during Ban Ki Moon’s visit to McGill in 2016, along the way garnering support and endorsements from SSMU, the Faculty of Arts, the School of Environment, and a myriad alumni. In 2015, twenty alumni symbolically returned their diplomas in protest of McGill’s second refusal to divest following a long sit-in in the administration building.
Lenetsky, a U3 Environment student and Divest organizer, believes that the endorsement from the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), which encompasses professors and librarians, has been the biggest win for Divest so far.
“We were expecting more resistance, and there wasn’t any,” they explained. “It’s very difficult to find professors who would agree on anything, so the fact that there is so much consensus around this issue amongst our professors is really promising, and it’s testament to how far we have come along as a campaign. Not only is MAUT endorsing Divest, they are also calling on the professors’ pension committee to divest, and divesting their own money as well. So they are not just endorsing this, but leading by example.”
Balance in advocacy work
During the Q&A session, participants discussed Divest’s activism within and outside the system, and differences in their effectiveness. Scheer pointed out that Divest’s two-pronged method must achieve a balance between aggressiveness and diplomacy in order to achieve its goals.
“The whole point is to offer a way for the administration to say yes on their own terms,” they said. “After actively protesting, we go to meetings and persuade them to sign. Sometimes tensions can build when we’re singing and they’re trying to talk. It’s very important not to hurt any feelings the administration aren’t bad people; we just need to get somewhere together.”
“The administration aren’t bad people; we just need to get somewhere together.”
On December 12 2017, the McGill Board of Governors (BoG) met to discuss changing the terms of reference in the mandate of the Committee to Advise on Social Responsibility (CAMSR), the administrative body that ruled in 2015 that climate change, and by extension investments in fossil fuel companies, did not constitute, “grave social injury.”
The proposed change was to add a clause in the mandate to advise the university against using resources to advance specific social or political causes, with no community consultation prior to the meeting. It was proposed that the frequency of review of such terms be reduced from every three years to every five years.
To protest against such changes, Divest mobilized at the BoG meeting, forcing the meeting to adjourn and be postponed. Couture-Guillet argued that such proposed changes were problematic in many ways, and was a calculated attempted to rule out any attempt to divest.
“Anything can be political or social, and education arguably is,” she said. “It’s even more disturbing because they tried to pass that in the middle of finals, and if you look at the document, this change to the mandate was not listed in the beginning in the summary, so you really need to look through, in the details, to find out. Changing the review terms from three years to five years makes it even harder for student activists campaign to follow up.”
“They [The McGill Board of Directors] tried to pass that in the middle of finals, and if you look at the document, this change to the mandate was not listed in the beginning in the summary, so you really need to look through, in the details, to find out.”
Lenetsky added that the closed decision-making process of CAMSR adversely affected the whole student activist movement.
“Some members of CAMSR think divestment is too political, and they are allowed to think that, but when the individual opinions of members are enshrined into the mandate of CAMSR, it’s impossible for CAMSR to recommend divestment no matter what evidence we give them,” he said.
On February 15, the BoG will hold the postponed meeting to discuss the mandate, and Divest says they will be present as well.
Challenges on the horizon
“McGill is reluctant to push the boundaries beyond the really really status quo,” Lenetsky explained when the conversation eventually shifted to reasons why McGill’s progress on such issues is so slow. “We rely on government funding so much, and it’s a year-to-year thing, so they don’t want to get to political and jeopardize that in any way. McGill always gets a lot of money from the fossil fuel companies, but with the oil price crash, they are losing a lot of money anyway, because oil is a bad financial investment,” said Scheer.
“McGill is reluctant to push the boundaries beyond the really really status quo. […] We rely on government funding so much, and it’s a year-to-year thing, so they don’t want to get to political and jeopardize that in any way.”
Lenetsky, who uses his influence as a member of McGill’s Senate to lobby on behalf of Divest and follow up on the university’s promises, also thought that the biggest challenge so far was the McGill administration.
“The administration’s decision-making process is consistently biased against us and predetermines the outcome of not divesting,” he said. “For example they didn’t consult any experts on socially responsible investment, who would have addressed a lot of their concerns. A lot of experts they consulted were experts in their field of not divesting, and they offered their own personal opinion in contrast to where scientific literature is at. But I think once the administration makes the switch, McGill will divest.”
“The administration’s decision-making process is consistently biased against us and predetermines the outcome of not divesting. […]. For example, they didn’t consult any experts on socially responsible investment, who would have addressed a lot of their concerns.
For participant Siubhan O’Donnell, an exchange student from Ireland, a country that has as a whole divested from fossil fuels, there needs to be more collective efforts in mitigating climate change.
“The reason big institutions need to divest,” Siubhan said, “is because right now the only significant things that are happening are individual efforts. To keep the global temperature down, we need to all make an effort.”
This article originally referred to the speaker as “Sheer” instead of “Scheer”. The article has been changed to reflect the author’s real name on February 1, 2018.