Climate change and the case for fossil fuel divestment

By Lenore Fahrig

Can fossil fuel divestment affect the forces that are driving climate change? What is behind the divestment movement? How does fossil fuel divestment compare to and connect with other actions aimed at stopping climate change? Should the City of Ottawa divest from fossil fuels? Is fossil fuel divestment even possible for Canadians and Canadian organizations?

Join the Environment Committee of the Glebe Community Association for a presentation and discussion about these issues and more, at 7:30 p.m. on June 11 at Ecclesiax Church, corner of Fifth Avenue and Monk Street.

Tight timeline

According to Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of Canada and current governor of the Bank of England, “the vast majority of fossil fuels cannot be burned” if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change. Author and environmental activist Bill McKibben calls climate change “the most significant problem humanity has ever confronted” and the World Bank warns that “if we do not confront climate change, we will not end poverty.” Although most of us are increasingly aware of the reality of climate change, many would find these quotes extreme. They are not. On our current path, within a few decades a planet able to support over seven billion people will become a planet able to support less than half that number, a shift that will entail human suffering on a scale never seen before. All of this because we have failed to wean ourselves off fossil fuels – oil, coal and natural gas. There is still a window of opportunity to avoid the worst, but past inaction means that the timeline is now extremely tight. Global carbon emissions must start declining within the next five years and drop to zero within a few decades.

From fossil fuel to renewables

To stop climate change before it becomes catastrophic requires a rapid, wholesale transition from the fossil fuel economy to a new economy based on renewable energy and energy conservation. Standing in the way of that transition are the profits of some of the world’s most powerful companies. Individual citizens and non-governmental organizations have tried various ways to reduce fossil fuel consumption and associated carbon emissions, but carbon emissions have continued to rise. It is simply wrong to knowingly drive the world towards large-scale calamity, when the solutions for avoiding that calamity are available. Publicized fossil fuel divestment makes that statement more clearly than any other action.

What is fossil fuel divestment?

Publicized fossil fuel divestment means making a public statement committing to freezing investments in major fossil fuel companies, selling off existing investments in those companies over a set timeframe and then publicizing that decision. There are fossil fuel divestment campaigns on hundreds of university campuses; at least 25 universities have committed to divest. In addition, at least 70 philanthropic organizations have committed to divest; the most publicized of these was the divestment decision in September 2014 by the Rockefeller Fund. At least 67 churches around the world have also divested from fossil fuels, reflecting the strong moral imperative for fossil fuel divestment. In addition, 42 city governments have voted to divest from fossil fuels, mainly in the U.S. (e.g. San Francisco, Minneapolis), but also in the U.K., Australia, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. These city governments took the decision to divest from fossil fuels on the grounds that keeping fossil fuel investments in the city budget would be inconsistent with any other actions they might take on climate change, such as reducing the city’s carbon emissions.

Lenore Fahrig is a Glebe resident and professor of biology at Carleton University.

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