Mt. A. president noncommittal about shedding investments in Big Oil

MTA Divest member Hanna Longard (bottom right) summarizes student demands as university officials listen. L-R: Dan Nowlan, Chair BOR Investment Committee, Ron Outerbridge, BOR Chair, Jean-Paul Boudreau, Mt. A. president

Mount Allison students, who are members of the group Divest MTA, continued their four-year campaign Monday to persuade the university to shed its investments in big fossil fuel companies.

The students urged Jean-Paul Boudreau, the new Mt. A. president, to take a public stand on the issue by the end of the fall semester on December 4.

However, during a friendly, hour-long meeting, the students met some resistance from Boudreau and Ron Outerbridge, Chair of the Board of Regents (BOR), the university’s highest governing body.

Fighting climate change

The meeting began with MTA Divest member Hanna Longard saying that while individuals should take steps to fight climate change, institutions can have a much greater impact by withdrawing their investments in fossil fuels.

“At least 991 institutions worldwide have committed to fossil fuel divestment already removing $7.18 trillion from the industry,” Longard said. She added that the government of Ireland, the City of New York and Yale University are among the institutions that have shed their investments in big oil, gas and coal companies.

“Divest MTA is a student-led political group asking our university to remove its investments from the top 200 publicly traded fossil fuel companies,” Longard said, adding that in 2017, the university had endowment fund investments in 70 or more of these companies.

“As students, we were sold the idea of Mount Allison University as a progressive liberal arts institution,” she said. “We were disappointed to learn that our university is complicit in an industry that is harming people, the planet and our future.”

Longard also outlined the three main demands of the international fossil fuel divestment movement: A fast transition to renewable energy; no new fossil fuel projects anywhere and “not a penny more for dirty energy.”

Several other students spoke about the urgent need to fight climate change in light of the most recent international scientific report warning that if fundamental changes in all aspects of society aren’t made within 12 years, the world will face increased risk of catastrophic droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty.

Boudreau responds

Jean-Paul Boudreau responded by thanking the students for their “multiple years of engagement on this issue.”

The new Mt. A. president said the university’s website lists many ways in which Mount Allison is committed to environmental sustainability and environmental activism.

“I have to say I’m really impressed with the efforts that have been made by this university, we punch well above our weight,” he said, adding that while there’s more work to do to offset climate change, “I think it’s important to pause and to appreciate the achievements that this university has done.”

Other ways to fight climate change

Ron Outerbridge, chair of the Board of Regents (BOR) said the 24-member board, which includes faculty and student representatives, is responsible for the university’s investments and is always open to a dialogue about them.

“I’m proud of Mount Allison and what we’ve done for environmental [issues] and climate change,” Outerbridge said. “It is a complicated matter and…trying to figure out exactly the best way to address it is a challenge.”

He added that while the BOR recognizes that “climate change is one of our most pressing issues,” there are many ways to address it including changing people’s behaviour, a point also made earlier by President Boudreau.

Outerbridge suggested that since climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, it might make more sense to focus on the largest industrial polluters rather than the fossil fuel companies that produce oil and gas.

Dan Nowlan, chair of the BOR’s investment committee, promised that at the committee’s next meeting, likely before the end of the year, MTA Divest will be invited to give a presentation.

To read the university’s official position on climate change and responsible investing, click here.

Social licence

Later in Monday’s meeting, when Divest MTA member Naia Noyes-West said scientific experts recognize that divestment is a highly effective solution in fighting climate change, Robert Inglis, the university’s vice president of finance, wondered if divestment is a solution because it’s a political response or because it would change how the fossil fuel companies operate.

“I would say both,” MTA Divest member Catherine Turnbull answered. “We know that divestment works to take the social licence away from large industries or regimes like [South African] apartheid, like the tobacco industry,” she said, adding that divestment is therefore, both political and financial.

MTA member Adrian Kiva warned President Boudreau that Divest MTA would continue to press its demands for divestment from fossil fuels.

“You know that climate change is not going to go away and neither is Divest MTA,” Kiva said.

“If today you say ‘no’ to Divest, you’re going to have to continue saying no to Divest every semester of your tenure, at every meeting where it comes up, every time when a journalist asks you,” he added. “If you say ‘yes,’ you only have to say yes to it once.”

Kiva suggested that members of Divest MTA share in values that the Mt. A. president had expressed, the values of sustainability and engagement.

“We’re here to make that offer for you to join us and be part of the structural battle against climate change,” he concluded.

Members, Divest MTA. L-R: Naia Noyes-West, Adrian Kiva, Julia Campbell, Sarah Gordon, Catherine Turnbull, Mark Nicol, Cara MacKenzie, Hanna Longard

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12 Responses to Mt. A. president noncommittal about shedding investments in Big Oil

  1. Rima Azar says:

    I have a reading for our students by Dr. Desrochers along with Hiroko Shimiz. It is entitled: ”Blowing hot air on the wrong target? A critique of the fossil fuel divestment movement in higher education”:

    https://fcpp.org/sites/default/files/documents/Desrochers%20%26%20Shimizu%20-%20Fossil%20Fuel%20Divestment%20Movement.pdf

    As for Dr. Boudreau, I salute his courage. It takes guts to push back. I say the same about our BOR.
    I agree with Outerbridge who, like Louis Béliveau’ earlier comment on the Wark Times, suggested the following: “since climate change is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, it might make more sense to focus on the largest industrial polluters rather than the fossil fuel companies that produce oil and gas”.

    Of course, I would have also accepted any decision taken by our university with this regard (even if I personally do not endorse this divestment). In my humble and non-expert opinion, no financial decision should be taken lightly in life. We all gain when we do NOT take decisions under the pressure of high emotions, including emotional reactions to unmeasured acts such as occupation of administrative buildings, OR under blind adherence to international pressure.

    Yes, the climate is changing and, yes, we have a scientific and human duty to take care of our beautiful planet. Bravo to the students who care for our environment. However, one must remain realistic and skeptical (scientific approach)… even more so when we live in times where science is in danger (maybe more than our planet?) because it is increasingly driven by political ideology. I am not writing this last comment about climate change only. This is what is scary.

    Comment from Bruce Wark: Here is additional information on the Frontier Centre for Public Policy: https://www.desmogblog.com/frontier-centre-public-policy

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    • Rima Azar says:

      Thank you for the link, Mr. Wark.
      I agree, it is always important to know who funds whom.
      I discovered this U of T professor last summer. Very interesting fellow to listen to. Below is his link at U of T. He is also with the Institut économique de Montréal.
      http://geog.utm.utoronto.ca/desrochers/

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      • Les Hicks says:

        Ms Azar, I followed your link to Dr Desrochers’ site and noticed that a synopsis of one of his books listed on his site reads as follows : “In their new book Population Bombed! Exploding the Link Between Overpopulation and Climate Change, authors Pierre Desrochers and Joanna Szurmak challenge the notion that limiting population growth globally by having fewer children is the most effective way to prevent dangerous climate change. They argue, to the contrary, that economic development, supported by population growth and the increased use of carbon fuels, is the only practical way, now and in the near future, to raise living standards worldwide, to build resilience against any downsides of increased anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and to make possible a sustained reduction of humanity’s impact on its environment.”

        Does this argument regarding population growth not seem ludicrous to you? Anyone who has taken even an introductory course in Ecology would know that when an animal species’ population reaches a certain critical level of overcrowding, their numbers will eventually be reduced in some way, usually by some form of disease, stress, lack of food resources, or of other resources in the natural ecosystem they are a part of. Keep in mind that humans are just another animal species, and that between 1900 and 2000, the increase in world population was three times greater than during the entire previous history of humanity—an increase from approximately 1.5 to 6.1 billion in just 100 years. A recent estimate places the level of human population at 7.6 billion people.

        Similarly, Dr Desrochers’ call for the increased use of fossil fuels is insane (using the definition of insanity as repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results), when you consider the recommendations of the majority of the world’s top climate scientists who are calling for much deeper cuts in fossil fuel pollution to stave off a dangerous increase in global temperatures.

        Please keep in mind that there are millions, if not billions, of dollars being spent by entities and people like the Koch brothers, in disinformation campaigns, trying to discredit and sow doubt about the legitimate scientific studies of researchers who are not funded by the fossil fuel lobby.

        As an aside, thank you Mr Wark for providing the background information about the Frontier Centre for Public Policy so that readers are aware of the bias in their studies and reports.

        Regards,

        Les Hicks

        Liked by 1 person

      • brucewark says:

        Thanks Les for investigating Pierre Desrochers’ book. I notice he is also a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute. https://www.fraserinstitute.org/profile/pierre-desrochers

        The Fraser Institute is a far right, pro-corporate think tank that has received a lot of money over the years from Big Tobacco. http://www.tobaccotactics.org/index.php?title=Fraser_Institute and http://rabble.ca/news/2009/10/following-money-fraser-institute’s-tobacco-papers

        The aim of these think tanks is to spread their pro-corporate propaganda in the media under the guise of neutral expertise. The Fraser Institute seems to have fallen out of media favour recently, but their east-coast counterpart, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, still gets a fair amount of media attention.
        https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Atlantic_Institute_for_Market_Studies

        AIMS too has tobacco funding connections according to the Globe and Mail: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/think-tanks-with-ties-to-tobacco-arguing-against-plain-packaging/article32884552/

        AIMS’s first chairman was our own dear Purdy Crawford of Imperial Tobacco for whom the Mt. A. cultural cigar box on Main St. is aptly named. https://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php/Purdy_Crawford

        The current media favourite is the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Its Atlantic Director used to be Kevin Lacey who worked in the prime minister’s office when Stephen Harper was in power. The CTF is not the democratically run, grassroots organization that its name suggests. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/canadian-taxpayer-federation-opinion-lamont-1.3802441

        Harper himself worked for the National Citizens Coalition, founded by a rich insurance salesman named Colin Brown in the 1960s to fight against the introduction of publicly funded health care and later, to undermine other established social programs such as the Canada Pension Plan and the Canada Assistance Plan which matched provincial welfare payments. (Colin Brown, alas, had passed on by the time Paul Martin abolished CAP in 1995 leading to a sharp downward spiral in welfare rates.) The NCC’s original slogan was “more freedom through less government.”

        In his book on Canadian think tanks, “Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy,” Donald Gutstein writes that in 1975, “Brown transformed the NCC into a non-profit organization, funded by unnamed corporate and individual donors. Because the organization wasn’t registered as a charity, businesses couldn’t write off their contributions as charitable donations, but they could still deduct them as business expenses.” Thus, Canadian taxpayers helped fund the NCC’s pro-corporate propaganda. (The NCC also campaigned for right-to-work laws, an end to multiculturalism and more restrictive immigration laws.)

        I’ve mentioned only a few of the pro-corporate, Canadian think tanks here, but there are many more. Admittedly, there are some left-leaning think tanks too such as the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives — but the really big money is on the right end of the spectrum. https://guides.library.ualberta.ca/think-tanks

        Some of the right-wing Canadian think tanks are modelled on ones in the U.S. like the American Enterprise Institute. Jane Mayer’s 2017 book “Dark Money” provides detailed information on the American scene. I love her dramatic subtitle: “The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” I thought that subtitle sounded a tad exaggerated — until I read the book.

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  2. Louis says:

    Maybe the students in question should “divest” from MtA and go to Yale, where they can meet a like-minded administration :-).

    More seriously, I look at it this way: we’re using fossil fuels. I don’t want to get into whether that is a good or a bad thing. It just is. Lowering consumption of fossil fuels (something which I support most in the case of oil, which has many other uses, and is in limited supply – hard to believe that we’re *burning* the stuff!) may well be desirable. But that will come out of finding alternatives, not out of political “divest” movements, which do nothing other than to shift profits to others (or in extreme cases, could shift some of the industry to other countries).

    And now, for the $56 million question: Would we rather have hydrocarbon producers in Canada (previously providing employment for at least one parent of one well-known MtA activist, not to speak of many ex-Sackvillians in general)? Or would we rather import the stuff from the journalist-killing regime of Saudi Arabia, further strengthening them? Now, I realise that I’ll sound very much like the (industry) “Ethical Oil” campaign (which, like all pro and anti factions, tend to have some self-serving components), but isn’t it nonetheless true in this case? Isn’t Saudi power more likely dangerous than hydrocarbon emissions? (Lest I be considered an Iranian shill, I’ll quite readily state that I find that regime even more dangerous.)

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  3. Meredith Fisher says:

    These students who are speaking out with energy, courage and conviction, as Divest Mt. A, could very well lead their university to be one of the world’s most progressive places of learning. My hunch is that there are people from the Yale community that are looking to make a move to Canada! If you sit in public eating and drinking establishments in downtown Sackville these days, you are bound to meet American families looking to buy land here. There is a niche market just waiting to happen. That is ,unless the NB Conservative government lifts the moratorium! Then we will be looking for places to move to. And those choices (of desirable places) are getting slimmer.

    Like

  4. Rima Azar says:

    Dear Les (Hicks):

    I have not read the book you are referring to. The argument you are stating seems too odd (“farfelu” in French) from a first reading. I agree with you. However, this does not mean that his other argument did not make sense.

    You mentioned the Koch brothers. You do have a point indeed. This is why when scientific (at least medical) articles are published, the authors usually disclose their conflicts of interests (e.g., who funded their work, drug company or other, etc.). This is necessary because even subtle biases can affect the findings of studies.

    I personally find it alarming when government agencies become too ideologically driven.

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  5. Rima Azar says:

    Dear Mr. Wark:

    Thank you for your well-researched reply. Very informative!

    You stated that the Fraser Institute is *far right*. According to Forbes and the New York Times (see references below), it is rather “libertarian” or “libertarian and conservative”, not far right. It is only far right by comparison to the Sackville green bubble. Mind you, I may be considered right in our town, although I have always been centre-left (i.e., a faithful liberal federal voter who gave trust to the NDP once, after the sponsorship scandal). For fun, I went back in time and checked who was in power when I immigrated to Canada (the Conservatives; not the Liberals; the study’s findings on immigrants who tend to vote for those in power when they arrive to the country does not apply to me 😊).

    Seriously, should we always throw the baby out with the bath water whenever we want a change? I hear a lot of black- and white-comments in Sackville these days. For instance, businesses are all evil, biology does not exist (in advanced Psychoneuroimmunology seminars!). Everything that is not left may be easily labeled far right (sometimes even Nazi). It is in this context that people judge others’ choices (moralist approach of the MTA Divest Movement).

    I personally think the problem is not in the right or the left per se, it is in the intolerance of the other position. There is a richness to the breadth of wise ideas that could sometimes be coming from either the left or the right, the middle… or, even better, out of the box. It would be wise if we can avoid falling into the trap of demonizing others or perceiving them as traitors because they may not share our opinions.

    Just to end on a funny note, I mentioned having been to the centre-left. I have never thought I will live one day to see two of my Dear in-law family members and myself all on the same (political) page: You have the conservative-guy from Ontario (Fraser Institute style), the former communist guy from Québec (Sackville would have not been left enough for him), and myself (historically centre-left… and now centre-common sense?). It is Louis who noticed this family phenomenon. He made us laugh with his following comment: “Didn’t you notice that Mr. Maxime Bernier seems to be uniting you for the first time ever” 😊? Is it because of his ideas (no clue!) or… because common sense is not that common? Of course, this ironic story does not mean much yet (a year is a long time… mistakes, faux-pas, or voting opinions remain open).

    REFERENCES:
    -Tim W. Ferguson, Competitive and Not, Forbes.com, 20 Sept., 2004;
    -With Interest: Turning the tables on reform; The New York Times, Sept. 18, 2004).

    Like

    • brucewark says:

      Thanks for your comment, Rima. I normally don’t reply to comments, but felt I should at least post something about the mysterious Frontier Centre for Public Policy after you recommended that the Mt. A. students, who are fighting for fossil fuel divestment, read the work of a professor who, as Les Hicks points out, wants us to burn fossil fuels faster than ever. Moreover, he’s a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute which, whether you call it far right or not, is in the business of disseminating propaganda on behalf of their wealthy, but hidden, corporate sponsors. I do not respect the Fraser Institute — or its Atlantic counterpart — the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies because they operate behind screens that conceal their true purposes which have included defending the interests of big oil and tobacco companies.

      Donald Gutstein, who teaches in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser, is one of Canada’s leading experts on the work of these right-wing think tanks. Here is an excerpt from his book “Harperism” published by the online magazine The Tyee:

      “As of this writing in mid-2014, a tightly knit, smoothly operating neoliberal propaganda system has been installed in Canada. The foundations of wealthy businessmen, corporations and individuals are investing more than $26 million a year in neoliberal think-tanks and single-issue advocacy organizations. (This figure doesn’t include Calgary’s School of Public Policy, whose financial statements are buried within the university’s accounts.) The long-term goal is to discredit government as a vital institution and to champion market alternatives.

      “The system hinges on the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and other members of the MPS [Mont Pellerin Society founded in 1947] that provide neoliberal doctrine. Think-tanks transform the doctrine into research; sympathetic academics provide research studies compatible with the think-tank’s goals; corporate executives and the foundations of wealthy businessmen finance the research; and sympathetic media owners and commentators disseminate the research to target audiences.”

      I would ask that you read the whole excerpt at: https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2014/10/06/Reign-of-Stephen-Harper/

      Like

  6. Rima Azar says:

    I read your link twice (not just once), along with its related comments.
    VERY informative, to say the least… Many thanks for sharing!

    Like

  7. Louis says:

    This is really a reply to Les Hicks, but we’re beyond the level of commentary nesting permissible by the blog software, so here goes…

    I call BS wherever I see it. These days, that’s mostly on the left, but the idea that population growth is an environmental positive is full on BS. No argument from me on that one (count that in among books that I comment about but haven’t read!). I hold this view 100% concurrently with a preference for Canadian hydrocarbon production and being pro-pipeline.

    Environmental factors are one of my considerations, but not the only one. Social factors can be just as destructive as environmental degradation – and much more rapidly so.

    One could make an argument that wealthier societies tend to have fewer children, and that fostering economic development will help with overpopulation. I can buy that, to an extent. It’s just that one can’t order up economic development. That is largely dependent on… social factors, and those things don’t change overnight.

    In an ideal world, and from an environmental perspective only, I think that we’d be doing well if we were managing small population declines, of the 0.1-0.2%/year. More than that and we’d have an inverse pyramid problem.

    The danger with population reduction approaches is that they don’t occur in a vacuum: and the adage that “demographics is destiny” is very true. A population reduction approach has disastrous potential for a society if there isn’t widespread buy-in for it and/or if combined with excessive immigration, i.e., beyond integration capacity. In both cases, it can lead to social collapse, being a problem which can happen much more quickly than environmental catastrophes, and may be no more reversible. I see both as similar phenomena, just at a
    different scale.

    I’m well aware that most “think tanks”, of either the right or the left (Soros, meet the Koch brothers!), push an agenda under the guise of “independent research” and “grassroots” initiatives. Unfortunately, the same can be said for much of academia, where hard-left positions are a strong default bias these days, leading to moderate right – and even moderate left – positions being perceived as extreme. I find the whole thing hypocritical, regardless of whom it’s done by. That being said, all claims are worth evaluating for potential solutions, because not all self-serving statements are wrong.

    For a down-to-earth example, if someone is selling a better mousetrap, with a view to making a profit as their motivation, it doesn’t mean that the mousetrap isn’t useful and a worthwhile buy, even if their motivation is suspect. It just means that one needs to investigate the claim more carefully first.

    The fault that most – of whatever political stripe – are guilty of, is of not applying the same standards to the claims of their “own” side. It’s human nature to apply an emotional filter, but it’s
    something that we’re usually better off trying not to do when making policy decisions.

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  8. Rima Azar says:

    Very informative Louis! Thank you.

    I am specifically talking about this George Soros that I took the time to read about. How interesting to be hated by Hungary and Israel at the same time (what a character):

    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-hungary-soros-idUSKBN19V1J4

    https://www.lemonde.fr/europe/article/2017/07/13/israel-et-la-hongrie-s-allient-contre-le-philanthrope-george-soros_5159970_3214.html

    Well, I stand by what I wrote earlier. To me, private donators who fund ideologies and propagandas (e.g, the Koch family, the Sorros family of this world or other much smaller players), remain one thing, even if they are obnoxious. A good example is the book Les Hicks attracted my attention to (thanks again).

    In contrast, government funding agencies are a totally separate thing. They use our own tax money. Plus, we must be able to trust the research entreprise. Indeed, we should always be confident that research funding is based on science, not on political ideologies (even if all governments have political agendas). In addition, when public funders are too driven by political ideologies, even if researchers state their sources of funding in publications, potential biases can become obscured (in comparison to a declared source of private funding). As a result, consumers of science (readers) risk becoming less equipped to assess the extent of the authors’ bias. This can negatively impact the quality of science or technology.

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