Op-ed: In response to Alex Chow's letter on divestment

We’ve got a few things to say about a letter by Alex Chow that this paper published last week on why divestment is a bad strategy for UBC.

Chow writes that “a fossil fuel divestment campaign led by UBCC350 has convinced a number of students and faculty members that divestment is the answer to the climate crisis.” No one ever said this. No one has ever claimed that divestment will single-handedly solve the greatest sociopolitical issue of our time. Divestment is, however, a necessary step towards combating climate change.

Furthermore, Chow points out that “studies have shown that the majority of greenhouse gas emissions are actually released at the point of consumption. The solution to climate change is to reduce the amount of fossil fuels consumed rather than oppose the companies who produce them.” Chow, like many other critics of divestment, argues that the onus is on consumers to change.

But the market doesn’t change on its own — A precedent needs to be set. When a huge institution like UBC moves to divest, it pressures people to rethink their habits at the consumer level. When we start to invest in sustainable energy and make it more accessible to more people, only then do we change the market. Until we put pressure on these companies to change, they’re not going to. 

Chow goes on to point to prominent institutions like Harvard and Columbia University as places that have come out against divestment as a reason why UBC shouldn’t. Name-dropping respected universities in this instance is a flawed appeal to authority. There are over 300 signatories on an open letter from Columbia’s faculty to the administration in favour of divestment. Harvard has one of the most vocal student organizations pushing for divestment in the continent. There are students and faculty at Harvard, NYU, Columbia – every institution Chow uses in a vague attempt to strengthen a fundamentally flawed and confused argument – who are vehemently pushing for divestment. There is a robust debate at those institutions much like there is here.

In regards to UBC, Chow cites the AMS referendum last year saying that “the campaign claims to have ‘overwhelming’ support from students when, in fact, only 6,786 students voted in favour out of a population close to 60,000.” That doesn’t mean that 90 per cent of students are against divestment. It means that the vast majority didn't care enough to voice their opinion (which is a serious — but completely separate — issue).

The power of divestment lies in its ability to create public discourse. Let's lead that conversation, not stifle it. Divestment campaigns remove the social license granted to fossil fuel companies by consumers. Twiddling thumbs and mumbling about supply and demand is a pretty spineless position for a global research institution like UBC to be taking.

Divestment doesn’t claim to save the world. It doesn’t claim to be the only answer to a massive problem. It only claims to be one part of a movement towards the change we so desperately need. Framing it as anything else is a discredit to the intentions of the movement and to the debate around how to deal with climate change itself.