Opinion: Fossil-fuel divestment urged at UBC

By David Green, Kathryn Harrison and George Hoberg, Special to the Vancouver Sun

We, along with more than 170 other faculty members, this week signed an open letter calling on the University of British Columbia to divest from fossil fuels. In so doing, we are inspired by our students, who last year voted almost 4-1 in favour of divestment.

The UBC Faculty Association will decide on Monday whether to hold a referendum calling on the university to immediately forgo further investments in fossil-fuel companies, and divest from existing fossil-fuel holdings within five years.

Academic researchers understand all too well that climate change presents an urgent crisis for humanity. The science is clear: the evidence is overwhelming that we are hurtling towards a future that is dangerous for humankind. Immediate actions are required to restructure our energy systems away from fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Luckily, research by engineers and economists also shows that such a transition is both technologically feasible and affordable.

In addition to conducting research, professors also interact daily with today’s youth, who will suffer the greatest consequences should we fail to address the climate crisis. As teachers, we are reminded of our moral duty to future generations. We believe that is inconsistent with UBC’s core values of sustainability, global citizenship, and innovation to support an industry whose products are driving us toward an unsustainable future. And it is disturbing to us that our students’ education, an investment in their future, should be funded in part by profits from an industry that harms that same future.

Some are concerned that divestment might reduce the income UBC receives from its endowment, but this need not to be the case. Studies designed to measure the impact of divestment have found little or no impact on returns. Indeed, there are increasing concerns, from the likes of the Governor of the Bank of England and major pension funds, that a “carbon bubble” could pose a significant threat to fossil-fuel investments. Just as UBC has undertaken renewal of its facilities and operations as a “living laboratory” for sustainability, we call on our university to apply its expertise and values with the same vigour to its endowment. UBC should devise a profitable fossil-free portfolio that inspires sustainable investing by other institutions.

Others argue UBC should maintain ownership so that it can exercise leverage as a shareholder. However, because the business model of fossil-fuel companies relies fundamentally on exploiting carbon reserves that humanity can’t afford to burn, working through shareholder channels is inadequate to achieve the transformative changes required. These urgent times demand rapid and significant changes in our energy system, and we believe those changes would be better fostered through the more dramatic action of divestment. Moreover, divestment rejects the dissembling tactics of the fossil-fuel industry, including efforts to mislead the public about climate science and to delay the adoption of cost-effective policies that draw on social science research.

No one would argue that UBC divestment would single-handedly change our planet’s future. We also realize our society and economy as currently structured need fossil fuels to operate. If we are to leave our children a sustainable future, we need to societal-level change, and that is a much taller order than the decision to divest. With a problem on this scale, people are often unwilling to act unless they are sure others are ready to do the same. To that end, divestment is, more than anything else, a signal to each other that we recognize the scope of the problem and we are willing to start taking actions to address it. The divestment movement contributed to an international groundswell of public opinion against apartheid in South Africa. Divestment can play the same role in affirming the moral certainty that we need to move away from fossil fuels.

Divestment is an act of leadership. We are proud of UBC’s commitment to sustainability. We also support the overwhelming call by our students for divestment from fossil fuels. The time has come for UBC to take the next step in living to its ideals.

David Green, Kathryn Harrison, and George Hoberg are, respectively, professors of economics, political science, and forest resources management at UBC. The faculty open letter and signatories can be found at www.ubcc350.org/faculty_divestment.


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