U of T president criticized for rejecting fossil fuel divestment

Mar 31, 2016 | News

Jeremy Appel

University of Toronto President Meric Gertler came under fire Thursday after rejecting environmentalist calls for Canada’s largest university to divest wholesale from companies involved in fossil fuel extraction.

Instead, Gertler, a geographer by trade, pledged to divest from companies strictly “on a firm by firm basis,” according to the CBC.

The strategy would target only those who “blatantly disregard” environmental norms, the Globe and Mail reported.

He didn’t elaborate further on what criteria the university would use to determine which companies should be targeted for divestment.

Fossil fuels – primarily coal, natural gas and oil – are sources of energy formed from decayed plants and animals that are regarded as a major contributor to climate change.

Last December the Financial Post said U of T “has $32.4 million of its endowment fund invested in fossil fuel companies.”

“The fossil fuel industry has an enormous amount of control in the governance of our institutions across Canada, whether it’s the government or a public institution like our universities,” Katie Rae Perfitt, with the environmentalist organization 350.org, told Humber News.

For this reason, groups like 350.org and the Sierra Club have called on universities to lead by example and divest.

“Students are turning up the heat because we can’t wait for our institutions to take the action that we need. We have to push them to do it,” said Perfitt, who is the Canadian divestment organizer with 350.org.

She said Gertler is involved in “greenwashing” the school’s investment policies.

“In 2015 leading scientists and economists publicly stated that in order to keep the rise in temperatures at 2 C, which is very important for our safety, 75 per cent of fossil fuels must remain in the ground.” – Laurel MacDowell, University of Toronto environmental historian

“They’re using really flimsy wording with no criteria to try and placate people and make themselves look good,” while doing nothing in practice, Perfitt said.

In response to Gertler’s decision, Toronto 350.org issued a statement pointing out that the president is rejecting advice from a committee he established.

The committee concluded in December after a year of research that “fossil fuel firms engaging in activities that blatantly disregard the 1.5-degree threshold (for limiting global warming) are engaging egregiously in socially injurious behaviour. The university should, in a targeted and principled manner, divest from its direct holdings in such firms,” specifically oil extraction, Arctic drilling and fracking.

U of T professor slams administration inaction

University of Toronto environmental historian Laurel MacDowell told Humber News she is “amazed that the leaders of the university seem not to be aware of how very serious climate change is.

“In 2015 leading scientists and economists publicly stated that in order to keep the rise in temperatures at 2 C, which is very important for our safety, 75 per cent of fossil fuels must remain in the ground. That means that the need to change the energy regime was and is upon us,” said MacDowell.

The president’s expert committee used an even lower threshold of 1.5 C, suggesting even more urgency.

“Politicians seem to be having difficulty grasping this fact and responding to the problem. But you would think that academics, particularly at a university that has a large environmental studies program and many scientists researching environmental issues, would know better,” she said.

Gertler seems to be missing the point with his apparent conflation of pollution and climate change, MacDowell added.

“Pollution is a huge problem, but climate change is about the continuing production of fossil fuels for energy purposes. If the production ends the pollution will also end but the environmental focus is production not pollution,” she said.

A university spokesperson declined Humber News’s requests for comment “due to the volume of media requests.”

The University of Calgary, McGill University in Montreal, Dalhousie University in Halifax and the University of British Columbia have each rejected similar divestment initiatives.