Opinion: UBC Should Reject Divestment and Stand up for B.C. jobs

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“Because I am deeply concerned about climate change, I also feel compelled to ask whether a focus on divestment does not in fact distract us from more effective measures, better aligned with our institutional capacities.”

— Drew Faust, president of Harvard University, Oct. 3, 2013

The University of B.C.’s Board of Governors faces a challenging decision on Feb. 15 — its finance committee recommends rejecting the wishes of students and faculty who voted to ask UBC to divest its shares in coal and other fossil fuel companies.

On one side, arguments that UBC make a symbolic stand by divesting; on the other, clearly the university could suffer a significant financial loss, alienate energy companies that donate funds and their employees — many hundreds if not thousands of graduates of UBC — whose taxes help pay for higher education.

While the debate may be raging at UBC, this is not an academic argument — it affects the lives of real people.

So as union leaders who represent the coal miners, longshore and construction workers, who extract and transport coal as well as other fossil fuels, we say divestment could be a costly mistake — and not only for our members, but for UBC.

We agree on the need to address climate change and transition to lower-carbon consumption, but we disagree that divestment is the way to do so.

We look at the practical impact divestment could have — the loss of our members’ jobs, the reduction in tax revenue that fund not only UBC but our entire education, health care and social program expenditures, and the reality that metallurgical coal is essential to steelmaking (there is no known substitute).

Without steel there would be no wind turbines, no electric cars, no rapid transit vehicles, no cellphones — or a host of other environmentally needed products.

Yet the overwhelming majority of coal mined in B.C. is metallurgical.

It’s also true that divestment could be little more than an empty “feel good” action where other investors buy up UBC’s fossil fuel shares at a discount and nothing changes.

The divestment vote comes at a difficult time for the coal sector: Several B.C. metallurgical coal mines recently closed and others have reduced operations due to low world market coal prices.

That means real and ongoing hardship for coal miners in places like Tumbler Ridge, Sparwood, Elkford, Fernie and more — places where the taxes that coal workers and companies pay cover the cost of schools, hospitals, roads and social programs.

In total, B.C.’s coal sector provides about $715 million in tax revenues to the province and municipalities each year while creating 26,000 direct and indirect jobs from $5.7 billion in economic activity, based on the latest available figures.

Those are significant numbers to put at risk, but divestment proponents don’t seem to care.

In an opinion piece in The Vancouver Sun on Jan. 28, UBC PhD student Alex Hemingway admits that: “We all share responsibility for climate change — fossil fuel users and producers alike. But the fossil fuel industry has played a uniquely destructive role.”

Hemingway doesn’t, however, suggest sharing responsibility, like students and staff stop driving or taking SkyTrain and buses to UBC; or turn off the heat and lights or give up all the computers on campus, because these things all require steel.

Divestment would instead unfairly put the responsibility for climate change almost solely on the backs of our members — and ask them to pay for it with their jobs.

Divestment advocates need to face the reality that UBC, like all of Canada, needs energy and steel to survive.

The current demands made on UBC illustrate another big problem with divestment — it reduces a complex issue into oversimplified feel-good rhetoric, while asking universities to fight the energy sector — a key part of our economy.

Isn’t it better that UBC continue to do the kind of research that has led to more energy efficiency and conservation and to work cooperatively with companies to find new solutions — like carbon capture and storage — to help the world achieve emissions reductions?

Harvard, Yale and Dalhousie universities have rejected divestment calls for many of these reasons.

UBC should do the same — and keep up the valuable work needed to solve our energy future equitably.

Mark Gordienko is president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada; Steve Hunt is director of the United Steel Workers, Western Canada; Brian Cochrane is business manager at the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 115; Tom Sigurdson is executive director for B.C. Building Trades.

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