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Why Big Institutional Investors like McGill University Should Divest from Fossil Fuels

Questions to Dr Gregory Mikkelson, School of Environment & Department of Philosophy at McGill University.

Did you know that your money could be furthering the climate crisis without you even knowing it? Many of the funds people put their savings in, for example their pension, are then invested in fossil fuels or other carbon intensive industries. Have you checked where your money is invested?

We can all dedicate our time to putting pressure on governments and asking people to change their consumptions habits, but if our financial system and our savings are kept unchecked, we are working against the tide.

McGill University is one big institutional investor, with an endowment of more than 1.63 Billion dollars. Like many other big institutional investors, a part of its portfolio includes investment in the fossil fuel industry.

The Climate Reality Project Canada discussed with Dr. Gregory Mikkelson, Associate Professor at the School of Environment & Department of Philosophy at McGill University. Dr. Mikkelson researches environmental ethics, ecological economics, and political ecology. He is also involved in the campaign for McGill to divest.

Not everyone might be aware of the role of Universities’ endowments in the transition towards a carbon-free economy. First, what exactly does ‘divesting’ from fossil fuels mean for an institution like McGill?

For McGill, divestment would mean selling all of the stock the McGill endowment currently has in companies whose primary business is the extraction, distribution, and/or sale of fossil fuels; and all mutual funds that invest in such companies.

Why is it important for McGill and other institutional investors to divest from fossil fuels?

For an institution like McGill - the Canadian prime minister’s alma mater - to divest would send a strong message that governments must take much stronger measures to reduce the consumption and production of fossil fuel.

What could be the impact of McGill divesting? Do you foresee other universities doing the same?

Not only would divestment by universities and other public institutions induce other like institutions to divest, but research shows that such divestment campaigns work effectively in getting governments to take stronger action, thus reducing the harms caused by offending companies. Almost all divestment campaigns succeed in lobbying for restrictive legislation affecting the targeted firms.

Where is McGill positioned compared to other universities when it comes to divesting?

McGill is falling behind a large and growing number of universities worldwide that have committed to partial or full divestment from fossil fuel; including Cambridge, Oxford, and more than 60 other institutions of higher education in the UK; Stanford, Columbia, and more than 40 others in the US; and the University of Laval in Canada.

How have students and faculty members worked to push the administration to divest?

The student group Divest McGill (DM) has worked vigorously on this campaign since 2012, and the staff group McGill Faculty and Librarians for Divestment (MFL4D) since 2014. Actions have included many educational events for the McGill community, and successfully advocating for organizations collectively representing all McGill students and professors to take positions in favor of divestment (the Students’ Society of McGill University, Post-Graduate Students’ Society, and McGill Association of University Teachers).

This September 12th, the McGill Senate will vote on a motion advising the university's Board of Governors to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. McGill has divested for moral and political (as opposed to purely financial) reasons at least three times in the past: in the 1980’s from companies – including fossil fuel corporations – doing business in South Africa; and in the first decade of the 21st Century, from corporations doing business in Myanmar and tobacco firms.

How can someone interested in getting involved in your advocacy work take action?

I encourage interested McGill students to contact Divest McGill: https://www.facebook.com/DivestMcGill and divestmcgill@gmail.ca .

For McGill Faculty and Librarians for Divestment, get in touch with mfl4divestment@gmail.com .

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