With a papier-mâché elephant head perched atop the MUSC fireplace, and a banner reading, “climate change: the elephant in the room,” the symbolism was clear at Fossil Free McMaster’s annual event on Feb. 26. Keisha Neoma-Quinn, a recent fine arts graduate and creator of the contraption, contemplated putting the head on and walking around to get students’ attention.

“I think that students that are open to [the movement] come up to us, but most students walking by, they’re really busy,” she said. “Unless they realize what the cause is for and agree with it, it’s pretty hard to draw them in.”

As a volunteer for Fossil Free McMaster, Neoma-Quinn knows about the difficulties in engaging students on climate concerns. While co-coordinator Conner Hurd indicated that the event’s turnout had been positive, the students flowing through MUSC were largely disengaged from the tables and banners of Fossil Free.

This is lamentable given that the aim of this OPIRG working group is to get the university to divest between $41 and $48 million of its endowment fund from tar sands companies to what Hurd termed “more morally conscionable” alternatives. The push to divest is not unrealistic; Canadian schools Concordia University and UBC have made significant progress, while internationally, the University of Glasgow and a number of American schools have divested. As Canada’s leading Fossil Free institution, Concordia has agreed to create a sustainable investment fund of $5 million. While Divest Concordia continues to push for full fossil fuel divestment, many have seen this as a positive first step in assessing the movement’s viability in a country heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

Fossil Free McMaster has support extending to its faculty. Along with biology professor James Quinn, professor emeritus of economics Atif Kubursi is coordinating a letter from faculty to McMaster’s Board of Governors. His reasons are clear: “if we want to leave a planet for our children and grandchildren that would afford them the same amenities that we enjoy, we have to do something.”

Neoma-Quinn, building off of this framework, argued that “climate scientists agree that a rise in global temperatures of two degrees Celsius is manageable, but above that you’re risking catastrophic climate change. The fossil fuel companies already have in their reserves five times the amount of fossil fuels it would take to raise world temperatures by two degrees. So that means that 80 percent of their reserves need to stay in the ground if we’re going to avoid catastrophic climate change.”

As oil prices drop, divestment groups are also calling for reassessment of these stocks’ risk, since their prices are in part calculated on reserves they should never burn.

Like anything else, the environmental movement is complex and contradictory, and talks given by its public faces are often rallying cries instead of nuanced debates. The Fossil Free movement has many criticisms, including claims of impracticality given Canada’s economic dependence on oil, divestment’s perceived lack of real impact, their desire to target the supply rather than demand for oil, and a general perception of fossil fuel stocks as more profitable than those in renewable energies. While it would be unfair to paint Fossil Free McMaster as one-sided, most of their debate is on an individual basis at tabling events. Though they do have rebuttals, the group lacks the kind of large-scale university discussions needed to address these criticisms en masse.

Roger Jacobs, Chair of Biology, is aware of the troubles discussing these complexities.

“As a scientist I can provide all kinds of facts about what aspects of energy extraction industries are more damaging than others, and then you have someone from the humanities who will take a much more holistic and less reductionist approach and we’re talking at different levels.”

Yet it is crucial to preserve this culture of debate, as the university is “a place for learning and a place for open intellectual discourse without risk.”

Kubursi goes one step further with the faculty letter, saying “if it is considered political to speak out and to try to raise the cost of damaging [environmental] action, then if we don’t do something, it is also political.”

The Fossil Free team believes that the movement is crucial in creating a “social and moral taboo” from Canada’s leading academic institutions, just as schools have divested from companies involved in tobacco and the South African apartheid in the past. With over 500 petition signatures, Hurd plans on putting the issue to a student referendum, relying on student engagement to motivate the administration.

Said Hurd, “it shouldn’t be the university’s job in all cases to champion our opinion, but after [President] Patrick Deane wrote his letter Forward With Integrity, we think that if McMaster really is going to move forward with integrity, that divesting from fossil fuels…is a logical step.”

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