Op-ed: When universities fund planetary destruction

Every year, St. Thomas University’s endowment fund allocates more than $1 million in fossil fuel industry stocks. 

 STU and most places of higher education tend to teach the science of climate change and the social and economic aspects of environmental degradation. Yet they continue to invest in fossil fuels and profit from these industries.

It’s unethical and hypocritical.

Colleges and universities around the world have endowment funds, pots of money invested in a range of stocks, generating profit to fund their operations. Most institutions have large investments in fossil fuel company stocks, including oil, gas and coal and the fossil fuel industry is the largest emitter of carbon emissions which drive the climate crisis.

Divestment is the commitment to withdraw from the funding of planetary destruction. 

To combat the current climate crisis, we require a transition away from fossil fuels and toward a renewable energy-driven economy. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations, has stated that to avoid catastrophic climate change, global heating must be kept to 1.5 degrees C. 

As institutions of higher learning, universities have an obligation to be leaders in this transformation. The first step is to make sure their operations and their investments are part of the solution, not part of the problem.

The goal of the Divest STU campaign is to hold the university accountable for their commitment to be responsible global citizens. It’s requesting to be granted time on the agenda at the STU’s next board of governors meeting, to propose fossil fuel divestment and work collaboratively towards progressive action at STU. The student-led campaign at STU has gathered unanimous support from the St. Thomas University Students’ Union and the Faculty Association of University of St. Thomas. Both groups agree that STU should discontinue funding, and profiting from, the fossil fuel industry. 

Fossil fuel divestment is a global movement uniting activists within institutions working to address and act on the global climate crisis. According to the Fossil Free website, currently 1,156 institutions are committed to divestment, a combined total of $12 trillion – that’s a significant amount of money. As more institutions commit to divestment, this number will continue to grow. 

There are 167 colleges and universities worldwide that have successfully committed to “immediately freezing any new investments in fossil fuel companies, divestment from direct ownership and any commingled funds that include fossil fuel public equities and corporate bonds within five years, and end their fossil fuels sponsorship,” according to website Fossil Free. None of the successes among campus divestment campaigns were easy and many student groups are continuing to lobby their school’s administration to commit to divestment. 

Much of the conflict between students pushing for divestment and board members resisting it, arises from the university’s public image and relationships with certain industries. The battle between students and administration is representative of the much larger social and economic challenges caused by the fossil fuel industry, which has strongly influenced governance and the economy for decades.

While many students continue advocating for fossil fuel divestment at their universities, some major successes are worth noting. In September 2019, The University of California (UC) committed to cutting its fossil fuel stocks – equivalent to $150 million of its $80-billion investment fund. UC’s commitment to divest is a huge win for climate activists and the global divestment movement. Institutions with such large investment funds have the power to influence other financially powerful universities such as Harvard and Yale, which have so far declined to divest their multi-billion dollar endowments despite pressure from their respective student bodies and faculties. 

Compared to UC’s $150-million divestment commitment,  STU’s $1-million fossil fuel investments would clearly have less financial impact on the industry. But while one goal of divestment is to take away economic power from fossil fuels, the movement also aims to create social awareness and consciousness of financial responsibility to the environment. STU deciding to divest from fossil fuels may not be the overwhelming change in the continued profitability of the industry, but it will significantly increase awareness of the climate crisis, and it will demonstrate that STU is “the small university of big opportunities.”

This is an ethical issue that calls on the social responsibility of the university. It is time for STU to act as a leader in environmental awareness, and recognize the role that post-secondary institutions play in shaping public discourse and social understandings of climate change. 

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