Divestment: A necessary and powerful tool

By Adam Davidson-Harden

There are two basic foundations of a rationale supporting fossil fuel divestment, as applicable in any context, and in ours, with respect to OSSTF and the OTPP.  The first of these is based in the political exigency of divestment as a tactic designed for workers to contribute to a growing global movement that attacks the credibility of the fossil fuel sector directly through the decision to collectively withdraw investments in the world’s top 200 fossil fuel companies (one can consider Canadian tar sands and pipeline companies in addition to this).  Opponents of divestment argue that this tactic is ineffective, in that its intent is not to financially harm companies.  In a ‘counter-brief’ critical of the initial ECA proposal to divest in 2015, the author voices several criticisms of fossil fuel divestment as a tactic, however, a main theme of these is that political action to press for better laws and regulations around greenhouse gas emissions should be a stronger priority, and that unions should be focusing their efforts on this type of action instead of divestment.

Our response to this type of criticism is to assert that these two tactics are not exclusive.  All unions – indeed all Canadians – ought to be pressing our provincial and federal governments for significant regulatory change when it comes to demanding serious action on climate change.  Considering the previous Conservative government’s record of gutting environmental legislation and actively blocking progress on climate change at the international level, there is a lot of work to do to bring federal environmental regulatory regimes and climate policy back into a shape where they can be effective and substantial, in addressing climate change or a host of other interrelated ecological concerns.  The most glaring of these regulatory gaps is the lack of a federal approach to coordinating a carbon tax.  While we have a viable experiment with a carbon tax in British Columbia, we lack a concerted federal approach.  Indeed, we have a new Liberal federal government that has as yet failed to show significant momentum on climate, despite its positive showing at the recent UNFCCC talks in Paris.  Will the federal government overhaul the National Energy Board review system to take climate impacts into proper account?  Will the federal government continue to approve new tar sands pipelines that contribute to a situation that NASA and retired Columbia University professor James Hansen has described as ‘game over for the climate’?  These are all important political battles that need to be waged, from a regulatory standpoint.

However, such political efforts should not be considered as mutually exclusive with the politics of fossil fuel divestment as a tactic.   In tandem with a substantial and demanding policy stance when it comes to pushing for action on climate from our provincial and federal governments, we believe that backing action on fossil fuel divestment shows strong evidence that teachers are prepared to ‘put our money where our mouths are’ when it comes to climate.  In backing fossil fuel divestment, we add powerfully to a collective message from a growing number of university endowment funds, pensions, and other institutional investors who agree that this tactic is both necessary and powerful to send a clear message that fossil fuel companies are a major part of the current problem of confronting climate change through national and international policy.
Perhaps our backing of fossil fuel divestment could be done in tandem with the demand that Ontario implement legislation that could exclude public sector pensions from liability concerns in the case of fiduciary duty when it comes to divesting from fossil fuel companies.  However, an alternative point of view to this particular conundrum would be to point to the research on the possibility of ‘stranded assets‘ in fossil fuels. Not only are fossil fuel companies a detriment to our planet’s ecology and the future of human civilization, but from a narrow standpoint in terms of pensions returns, these assets can be considered a ‘risk’.  We would argue that the more pressing risk posed by fossil fuel companies, however, is in their refusal to veer away from fossil fuel exploration and extraction, knowing that humanity’s carbon budget is slim (see the resource from climate organization 350.org on ‘doing the math’ for more on this).
In summary, we urge our fellow members and federation leaders, as well as pensions specialists who are concerned with substantive action on climate change, to consider that fossil fuel divestment is a necessary and complementary strategy to combine with a strong policy stance and forms of political action to press for regulatory reform to address climate change.  Humanity faces a moral crisis in the case of climate, a reality reflected in the Leap Manifesto, to which OSSTF is a signatory.  Divestment has proved an effective tactic in building momentum and drawing attention to morally outrageous situations and injustice, from apartheid in South Africa to the Boycotts/Divestment/Sanctions movement drawing attention to Israel’s actions in the Palestinian occupied territories.  In the case of climate, we need all of the political action we can collectively muster to wage an effective struggle for change that not only focuses on government, but on the fossil fuel industry directly.  Let us as unions take all steps that we can to contribute to momentum for strong action on climate change.  As a final thought, we would encourage OSSTF to think about committing itself to support of broader direct action campaigns to support climate action, such as those currently in development as a part of the ‘Break Free From Fossil Fuels‘ campaign.  We must not settle for one set of tactics when it comes to pressing for substantive action on the climate.  More than ever, innovative and comprehensive efforts are necessary, from all of us.

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