SFU’s fossil fuel investments subject to controversy

Will SFU follow other Canadian universities and reject the call to divest?

Should SFU divest its $367 million endowment from fossil fuels? For the divestment group SFU350, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Earlier this month, SFU 350’s Raaj Chatterjee and Tessa Ramburn met with the SFU Responsible Investment Committee (RIC) to present the results of an SFU350 and Embark student engagement event that gathered opinions and suggestions from students in late March.

SFU350 collected input from 50 students, and gave a list of suggestions on how to build a divestment policy to the RIC, such as prioritizing social and environmental well-being ahead of the political repercussions of divestment.

They also suggest that future investments should be made under the Paris Pledge for Action that the university signed in late 2015. The pledge acknowledges the dangers of extreme climate change, and pledges to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.

Chatterjee explained in an interview that even though SFU has signed this document, they have a long way to go when it comes to responding to requests for fossil fuel divestment.  He said that so far, SFU is “responding in line with other universities,” and that he hopes “that they follow through with the divestment policy.”

The recent trend in Canadian universities has matched that of SFU. Earlier this year, UBC, McGill, and University of Toronto all rejected calls to divest.

A common explanation for rejecting divestment is that fossil fuel shareholders themselves would be better able to exert pressure on the industry to reduce carbon emissions. That doesn’t sit right with Chatterjee, though. He argued that logic is “completely false, and even the RIC, a couple of meetings ago, had written out a report that confirmed that [remaining a shareholder] had very little effect” on the fossil fuel industry.

He explained that remaining a shareholder and asking for lower emissions is “like you’re telling the fossil fuel industry to not do something that would give [you] profit, which doesn’t make any sense.”

During their presentation, Chatterjee and Ramsburn also explained that they have have collected hundreds of signatures from students who have pledged to some form of direct action should SFU fail to divest.

This kind of response caught national attention in late March when nine members of Divest McGill staged a sit-in at McGill Vice Chancellor Suzanne Fortier’s office for four days. Many others camped outside in solidarity, and on the last day of the sit-in, 20 McGill alumni handed back their diplomas.

The group also received word that a $2 million donation to McGill had been withdrawn in response to its rejection of divestment.

The next Monday, the Principal issued a letter to Divest McGill stating that the Board planned to partially meet Divest McGill’s requests by providing open forums in the fall and publishing the expert testimony that led to the decision to not divest.

For those impatient to hear back from the RIC, some groups at SFU have already begun tackling the issue of divestment head on. The SFU Faculty Association voted “overwhelmingly” to create an optional pension fund divested from the fossil fuel industry and the SFU Graduate Student Society has also set a goal of complete divestment by 2019 — after starting to divest in 2014, currently only 1 percent of their portfolio remains in oil and gas.

As for SFU itself divesting, Chatterjee said that the first steps are straightforward: “I think we could definitely easily divest from all of the direct holdings that we have, which is not many.”