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UVic faculty demand divestment from fossil fuel

Professors at the University of Victoria are demanding the school's administration freeze all new investment in fossil fuels and initiate a three-year divestment plan.

The university endowment fund has about $21 million currently invested in fossil fuels.

In an open letter addressed to Lisa Hill, chair of the University of Victoria Foundation and copied to university president Jamie Cassels, faculty members voiced concerns over the ethical and financial viability of fossil fuel investments, noting "the growing North American movement, led by students, to see their universities act as moral leaders for their communities by disinvesting from such companies."

Kelsey Mech, Divest UVic student organizer and chair of the UVic student society, said strong faculty support comes as a surprise. "Our goal was to have 100 faculty sign on by April 30. We just blew that target out of the water as we are already at 160, representing just shy of 20 per cent of faculty," she said. Nearly 2,000 UVic students have signed a petition in support of divestment.

"I've been organizing on campus at the University of Victoria on various environmental issues for the past five years, and I have never seen something light up the campus like divestment has," Mech told DeSmog Canada.

In their open letter faculty members state "the science is clear" on human-caused climate change, which is expected to cost the Canadian economy $5 billion per year by 2020. The adverse effects of a warming planet, they note, has already killed thousands and creates vulnerable environmental refugees.

The divestment campaign will be presented to the board of the endowment fund and the board of governors at UVic this summer.

Environmental studies professor and letter signatory Jessica Dempsey said faculty support for the initiative is growing. "I think both students and faculty are looking for ways to seriously engage and confront the climate crisis, in a time when we have no governmental leadership, and no signs of it on the horizon," she told DeSmog Canada.

Although there has been some resistance on campus, says Dempsey, the majority of it has not been against fossil fuel divestment in principle.

"There is pushback on campus, of course," she said. "But what is surprising is how much of that pushback -- at least so far -- comes not in terms of outright disagreement, but rather is focused on the difficulty of implementation. A common refrain is that 'it's complex.'"

The UVic endowment and pension investments are managed by trustees with a duty "that legally enshrines them to maximize returns," Dempsey explains, leading to questions about how these and similar funds can account for ethical considerations as well as their legal mandate to maximize returns. Pensions, she notes, are governed separately from the university's endowment.

According to Mech "the university has asked fund managers to consider environmental, social and governance factors when deciding on investments, but there is no formal or mandatory screening process to follow."

James Rowe, another professor at the School of Environmental Studies, said there is also a strong financial case to be made for divestment.

"The current valuation of oil companies includes huge reserves of fossil fuels that cannot be burned if humanity wants to avoid runaway climate change. When policy making inevitably catches up with the scientific consensus on climate change, share prices for oil companies will be negatively impacted, generating losses for investors," he said.

Investment in fossil fuels "conflicts" with the university's environmental leadership role on campus, the open letter states, including the housing of the influential Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.

"As with the movement against apartheid in South Africa, students have challenged the university to fulfill its role as a leader on issues of justice. And as with the anti-apartheid movement, this movement will not retire until it has succeeded," the letter reads.

More than 300 other North American universities currently host divestment campaigns. Recently the Simon Fraser University Faculty Association voted to create a fossil fuel free option in their pension and the City of Seattle voted to divest from fossil fuels.

[A version of this story first appeared on DeSmog Canada. It is published here with permission.]

Carol Linnitt is managing editor of DeSmog Canada.

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