McMaster climate activists push for divestment

Divestment from fossil fuels and termination of McMaster’s natural gas peak shaver project are crucial steps if the university is to uphold its promise to create a brighter world, McMaster Divestment Project members write.

The McMaster Divestment Project began a hunger strike on Monday, March 20 because the university’s current approach to sustainability is not compatible with the call for rapid decarbonization by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most well-researched scientific body on the issue. Rather than acting in accordance with the evidence, McMaster has continually released communications to rationalize their harmful policies and has dismissed the hunger strike, saying that students should “work productively” with the university. If it was possible to work productively with an administration acting in this manner, a hunger strike would be unnecessary. The university administration has been unwilling to engage with MacDivest members at meetings despite the exhaustive advocacy efforts we have undertaken for years. Here, we present the specific evidence that shows why divestment from fossil fuels and termination of McMaster’s natural gas peak shaver project, the two demands of the hunger strike, are crucial steps if McMaster is to uphold its promise to create a brighter world.

One argument McMaster uses to justify its fossil fuel investments is suggesting that it can use its stakeholder position to hold companies accountable, but McMaster’s investments do not hold significant value — a few million dollars of stock does not afford any leverage when it comes to companies worth billions of dollars. Further, these companies have a decades-long history of lying to the public to protect their profits while they commit climate destruction. They continue to use their resources to delay action. For example, COP27 (the global climate summit event in 2022) saw record numbers of fossil fuel lobbyists, which took speaking time away from climate advocates. It is better to invest money where it will be used for mitigation efforts rather than pretend that the corporations most culpable for the climate crisis have any interest in altering course.

McMaster applauds the decrease in carbon intensity of its investment portfolio from 4.5 per cent in 2018 to 2.7 per cent in 2022, but students and staff started calling for complete divestment in 2013. It’s worth noting that McMaster’s 2.7 per cent statistic represents an increase from a carbon intensity of 2.1 per cent in 2021. Instead of bragging about having $30.4 million invested in companies that destroy the environment, McMaster should fully divest in line with other universities as fossil-free investments can provide similar returns. With global carbon emissions at record levels, the university must send a strong social message, condemning the fossil fuel industry and accelerating the transition to sustainable energy.

McMaster claims the gas generators being built on Cootes Drive are needed to pay for future clean energy projects. For years, the International Renewable Energy Association has reported newly installed clean energy capacity costs that are comparable to or even less than fossil fuel equivalents, and McMaster’s own reports indicate that the gas generator project will carry a 13-year payback period, with 700 tonnes of CO2e emissions annually. During these 13 years, it’s likely that carbon taxes will increase and clean energy costs will continue dropping. Lastly, McMaster claims that replacing power originating from provincial gas generators with power from localized gas generators reduces net carbon emissions. This argument is only valid if we ignore the far better outcomes attained by choosing clean energy and cynically assume that the provincial government will commit to an energy policy that is incompatible with a livable future. The generator project fundamentally contradicts McMaster’s pillars of a sustainable community and efforts towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the city of Hamilton’s Community Energy and Emissions Plan and Climate Action Strategy. We hope McMaster can acknowledge the concerns of students, community groups, and faculty and take a step towards long-term sustainable change by terminating this project. McMaster should pressure the provincial government to pursue a clean energy strategy rather than using Ontario’s lack of action to justify the university’s own environmentally destructive practices. Governments have some accountability to the people, fossil fuel companies do not.