Office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor

[Principal and Vice Chancellor]
[Principal and Vice Chancellor]

Report of the Advisory Committee on Divestment of Fossil Fuels

The following is a letter from Principal Daniel Woolf to the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees, delivering the report of the Principal's Advisory Committee on Divestment: Fossil Fuels, and presenting his recommendation.

To: Investment Committee
From: Daniel Woolf, Principal and Vice-Chancellor
Date: October 23, 2015
Subject: Report of Advisory Committee on Divestment - Fossil Fuels


I have now received the final report of the Advisory Committee on Divestment: Fossil Fuels, which I attach to this memo. Under our Statement on Responsible Investing, my role is to receive the committee’s advice and, on that basis, provide advice to the Board’s Investment Committee as to a decision it should reach. This memo comprises that advice.

I am grateful to the members of the Advisory Committee, chaired by David Allgood, for their careful, extensive and thoughtful deliberations, and their wide-ranging consultations, which are detailed in Mr. Allgood’s covering letter to the report. I would note for the record that I did not sit on the committee and, at my own request, was kept at arm’s length from its deliberations to ensure that I approached its eventual report in a fully objective manner, uninfluenced by the discussions and submissions that were inputs to the report itself.  I am satisfied that the committee consulted widely with the Queen’s community and satisfactory opportunity was given to all concerned to present their views.

The report recommends that the University not divest from fossil-fuel related companies, basing its conclusion on two primary arguments: a) that the case for divestment on the basis of ‘social injury’ advanced by the petitioners is not compelling, and b) that, leaving a) aside, the committee does not believe divestment to be an effective tool in mitigating the risks of climate change.

The committee has not disputed that climate change is a crucial issue in the 21st century, nor the argument that the consumption of fossil fuels is a contributing factor. It further praises Queen’s Backing Action on Climate Change (QBACC) for its commitment, and draws attention to other ways in which the university can contribute solutions to the problem of climate change. I concur with their views on the seriousness of climate change, and am glad that the petition has occasioned a thorough discussion of the matter. These issues are serious, and deserve full and thoughtful consideration. I similarly commend QBACC for their initiative in having occasioned such consideration.  The process initiated by QBACC allowed us to hear many thoughtful views about climate change and the multitude of ways in which universities, business and government might address the issue.

I have considered the report from the perspective that Queen’s is an academic institution, the core activities of which are teaching and research. The endowment and investment funds exist solely to further these activities (which include the provision of student assistance). Our responsibility to the University, and its donors, obliges us to seek the best possible return on investments in order to advance our academic mission.  (I note that this perspective is similar to that expressed by the president of Harvard University in 2013.)

The preeminence of our academic mission is not an absolute consideration, and ‘special action’ such as divestment has occurred at Queen’s and elsewhere before, in other contexts (e.g., divestment from South Africa during the apartheid era). However, in this instance, the harm to the University produced by divestment (both in potential reduction to investment returns and in the negative signals sent to alumni and donors involved in the fossil fuel industries) vastly outweighs the positive benefit, if any, of divesting.  It is my belief that, were Queen’s to divest from fossil fuel industries without similarly returning all the student assistance and other funds provided over the years by donors connected with those industries, we could be justly accused of hypocrisy.

There are also far more effective ways of demonstrating the university’s commitment to finding solutions to climate change. Divestment would be at best a symbolic gesture, and would simply remove any moral suasion the University may possess with the fossil fuels industry, nor recognize that many companies involved in fossil fuel extraction are also extensively involved in developing renewable and alternative energy technologies. It would also do nothing to mitigate the consumption of fossil fuels on campus and across the country, or the development of affordable alternative energy sources, wherein the real long-term solution lies.

Queen’s is firmly committed to assisting in both of these latter endeavours. For instance, the Board of Trustees will shortly be asked to approve a contract with an Energy Service Company (ESCO) that will result in significant energy savings across campus. Various other steps are taken by non-academic departments, such as Hospitality Services, to reduce waste. And I agree that all efforts should be made by academic departments, where possible, to introduce awareness of the climate and the risks to it, into the curriculum; these, however, are academic decisions best made by departmental curriculum committees and faculty members.

Weighing all these factors together, my recommendation to the Investment Committee is that it adopt, in full, the advice of the Advisory Committee.

I look forward to discussing these matters at the next meeting of the Investment Committee, at which I request the committee reach a conclusion on the matter so that it may be communicated to the Board and to the wider Queen’s community.