The Symbolism of Divestment

A frequent response from those skeptical about fossil fuel divestment is to say that that the decision to sell an institution's holdings in fossil fuel companies would be "merely symbolic". These companies are hugely valuable, when measured by stock market price. Universities collectively hold a small portion of their total stockmarket value.

The central message of the divestment campaign, however, is that these companies are operating with a flawed vision of the future. Their expectation remains that they will be allowed to burn the fossil fuels they possess. It's on that basis that they continue to invest vast amounts of money into the development of extreme energy projects like arctic drilling, mountaintop removal, and the bitumen sands.

The ability of these companies to bring in the massive investment they require for these projects relies upon continued confidence that these coal, oil, and gas reserves remain valuable. As the world progressively accepts that the fuels cannot be burned, the value of these companies will diminish correspondingly.

The key shift here is a psychological one: from a world where most investors continue to see a bright future for the fossil fuel industry to one where people realize that we need a global energy transition. Many organizations are now concerned about climate change, and major policy changes like fossil fuel divestment will draw a great deal of attention. At the very least, they will drive investment managers around the world to start thinking about the risks climate change poses to their portfolios.

'Symbolic' is a word too often preceded with 'merely'. When your campaign is largely about affecting how people think, the fact that actions can be symbolic amplifies their ability to be powerful. Having U of T divest would add momentum and legitimacy to the campaign overall - helping to initiate the massive shift in investment which we need if climate change is to be kept to a manageable level. We need to stop investing in extreme fossil fuel projects and build a dependable and climate-safe global energy system.