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Dirty Money: Divest Mcgill and the Path Away from Fossil Fuels

Robin Steedman-Braun

Science and Environment Editor

Source: Divest McGill

A couple of kilometers down from Dawson College, on Sherbrooke Street itself, students have been urging for climate justice at McGill university. This past March, Divest McGill members and students took action, occupying the Arts Building, approaching the ten-year anniversary of the campaign to stop the University from investing in fossil fuels. This is not a new issue; it’s a topic that students and climate change activists have been relentlessly trying to uncover in the last decade and involves hundreds of other universities worldwide.

Here in Montreal, McGill students are leading the fight more than ever before. Divest McGill is an environmental justice campaign that was founded in 2012, urging McGill university to stop investing in fossil fuels and to acknowledge the urgency of the climate crisis. As stated on their website, the student-run organization has three main goals: the complete divestment from the more than 200 fossil fuel companies the university has invested in, to mobilize in solidarity with Indigenous and marginalized communities, and, finally, to educate McGill administration, staff, and students on taking climate action. As of today, their efforts have not prevailed: McGill has rejected divestment from fossil fuels twice in the last ten years, stating that “the beneficial impact of fossil fuel companies’ offsets or outweighs injurious impact at this time.”

It is no secret that we need to halt fossil fuel combustion to save our planet. Indeed, according to the latest IPCC report published just a few weeks ago, greenhouse gas emissions need to peak by 2025, only two and a half years away, to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as targeted by the 2015 Paris agreement. But how can we reach this goal if our universities are still investing millions of dollars into an industry fueling climate change?

McGill is only one of the hundreds of higher education establishments invested in the fossil fuel industry, including Yale, Stanford, and MIT. However, this past year marked a record number of schools divesting from the industry. In October of 2021, University of Toronto announced a commitment to divest from fossil fuel companies, a decision that followed that of many other universities this past fall, including Concordia University and Harvard University. This past year, 15% of divestment from fossil fuels worldwide came from educational institutions. According to Divest McGill, this isn’t enough.

The organization claims that McGill violates its restriction of investment in firms “causing social injury” by refusing to divest fully from the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry has been known to harmfully impact Indigenous communities across the country. From dispossession of native Indigenous land for intensive agriculture and animal farming, to the Canadian mining industry conflicting with Indigenous land rights up North, climate change heavily impacts native communities in Canada, and McGill university has a long history with colonialism itself. The University’s namesake and founder, James McGill, a Scottish immigrant and magistrate for the city of Montreal, was known to have had at least five Black and Indigenous slaves. While McGill has made an effort to reconcile with indigenous communities, stating that “McGill University recognizes the wealth leading to its establishment was derived, in part, from James McGill’s engagement in the colonial economic system and the transatlantic slave trade, the University acknowledges the deep, long-lasting adverse impacts that these practices have exerted on Black and Indigenous communities.

Needless to mention, McGill’s investment in fossil fuels is also harming the planet. The burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas, releases CO2 and other important greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, trapping light rays from the sun and propelling the increase of atmospheric temperatures. The oil industry is well-known to be a primary cause of these emissions.

While changes do need to happen on an individual level, it is crucial that our institutions take action. It is our duty, and the duty of our institutions, to pave the path to the transition from an economy heavily invested in fossil fuels to one that supports and thrives off renewable energy.



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