Market News

 March 16, 2016
Why graduates of a top Canadian university are returning their diplomas

 Students have tried petitions, research briefs, faculty letters, camping for a week on campus. But for a university that considers itself the Harvard of the north, McGill's administrators have shown little readiness to listen to reason. Or to heed the weather: February was the hottest month in a century by a "stunning" margin, according to Nasa.

As universities in England and the United States shed their oil, gas and coal investments, Canadian universities like McGill stubbornly cling to theirs. So in the fall I joined dozens of graduates in pledging to return my diploma if McGill didn't divest its endowment fund of its fossil fuel holdings --- worth an estimated 70 million dollars. The deadline is March 31; we'll hand them back on April 1.

It's a modest gesture alongside the pain and calamity that climate change is already wreaking. To prevent even worse, scientists have been warning that we must stay within our carbon budget: the maximum amount of carbon that can be ripped from the ground before we set off catastrophic global warming. Here's the problem: what fossil fuel companies have in their global reserves, and all of which they aim to burn, is five times that budget. This math means one thing about their business model: it entails the cooking of the planet.

These corporations must curtail the amount they're digging up, but they won't do it willingly. Nor will they because of the overhyped climate agreement signed in Paris in December. Oil companies readily acknowledge that the agreement has no impact on their plans. "We don't see any stranded assets. We think all our assets will be required," an Exxon Mobil spokesperson told media in January. It "reinforces our approach," Shell added. In other words, they're bent on treachery on a planetary scale.

So while these companies spend billions scouring the planet for yet more fossil fuels, popular movement are seeking ways to stop them in a hurry. The divestment movement, which started on campuses but has rapidly spread to faith-based groups, municipalities and pension funds, has been scoring one victory after another. Already more than 500 institutions have committed to divesting $3.4 trillion in capital.

The moral case is simple. As long as universities like McGill don't divest, they remain caught in a glaring contradiction: betting their prestige on preparing young people for the world while betting their dollars on making it uninhabitable.

Critics of the divest tactic complain that the stocks dropped by one university will simply be picked up by another investor. It's true that will have little immediate economic impact. But the success of the divestment strategy depends on the depletion of something else: the social brand of fossil fuel companies and their basic political legitimacy.

Once their very business model is considered illegitimate, it will create a new climate of political possibility. If these companies are ruinous to our planet, then we have a right to their profits --- to hike their taxes and royalties, even to turn them over to public control, in order to pay for a transition to a green and more equal society. That would include funding clean energy projects that benefit first of all the communities most impacted by the toxic operations --- and emissions --- of these companies.

So what's stopping McGill from taking the right side? No doubt they don't want to annoy the fossil fuel companies whose profits have filled their coffers. Nor do they want to provoke anxiety among other companies whose practices would similarly justify disassociation -- companies who use McGill to advance research in barbaric weapons, military drones and surveillance technologies.

But at this point, McGill's fossil fuel investments aren't just bad for the environment; they're creating risks for their bottom line. McGill could learn a lesson from Canadian institutions who got out of fossil fuels and saved their financial assets from the crash of oil prices. Last year the university's administrators accepted a mock cheque from students for $43 million --- the amount they've lost in fossil fuel holdings since students first demanded they divest three years ago. McGill was evidently not as embarrassed as they should have been.

The unfortunate truth is that universities like McGill are run these days liked badly-managed companies. They will not divest out of enlightened consideration. They'll divest when they perceive the damage to their brand may be consequential.

That's why alumni now have a unique responsibility and opportunity. By using their diplomas in a way they may not have expected, they can help McGill serve a higher purpose: educating students for their future, not sabotaging it.