President Meric Gertler chats while the world is on fire – December 16th 2020

In the midst of the Great Depression and throughout World War II, US President Franklin Roosevelt used radio broadcast ‘fireside chats’ to inform the American people of the actions the US government was taking on the crises they were facing. He looked to calm their fears and anxieties, and to assure them that the government had things under control. On December 1, 2020, UofT president Meric Gertler provided what felt like an FDR-esque performance via a webinar “Investing to Address Climate Change,” part of  the University’s Adams Sustainability Celebration. He paired concern for the urgency of climate change with calm reassurance that the University is charting the best course for meeting the crisis. 

Don’t be fooled.

The centerpiece of the webinar was a celebration and defense of the University’s new signature initiative—a Charter on responsible investing—and a parallel commitment by the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM)  to reduce the carbon footprint of the University’s endowment and pensions funds. Looking to get out from under an onslaught of staff, student, and faculty critiques, president Gertler lauded the broad approach of a sustainable investing strategy over calls for what he labeled “a narrow divestment approach” that would eliminate fossil fuel investments entirely. He touted the University’s decision to measure the carbon footprint of its investments in terms of carbon intensity (specifically carbon equivalent greenhouse gas emissions per million dollars in our funds) as a way to benchmark and assess its progress. 

We have no doubt that president Gertler is concerned about climate change, but when you look deeper into what the University is promoting, it’s clear that the path President Gertler discussed sets forth no New Deal for UofT or the climate, certainly not a Green New Deal. It was more Nero fiddling while Rome burns than FDR fireside chat. 

What are the problems with the Charter and UofT’s carbon intensity approach?

1. Misleading numbers—even if UTAM’s claims of 21.5% reductions in carbon intensity from 2017-2019 hold up, that translates to a less than 10% reduction in absolute emissions given the rise in the value of the University’s investments. We applaud the new announcement that absolute emissions will be reported, but the University needs to be held accountable for targets on them.  

2. Slow-moving, incremental action—Basing responsible investment on ESG principles is a slow-moving, long game for changing an investment portfolio. It shifts investments over time, which, in isolation, does not address the urgency of the climate crisis and the need for an immediate just transition away from fossil energy. Even a key advisor of the University Charter, Mark Carney, is on record saying that ESG principles are simply not enough. It also lacks the intuitive clarity and unambiguous character of a divestment pledge. Everyone understands divestment as the opposite of investment: it means taking the University’s money out of the fossil fuel sector.  Virtually no one outside the President’s inner circle really understands what ESG really means; one suspects that is part of its appeal to the University Administration.

3. Sets up a false dichotomy—President Gertler consistently discusses the University investment strategy as a choice between ESG or divestment. In the webinar he made a point of downplaying the contribution of the fossil fuel sector, arguing that since it is responsible for “less than 25% of Canada’s total emissions” only a broader approach is warranted. This is simply false. Whatever the shortcomings of ESG investing strategies — and there are many — divestment from fossil fuel companies and ESG are compatible with one another. Why are we not considering that divestment and an ESG investing strategy could be good for University finances? A University investment strategy that is “motivated by impact,” as President Gertler claimed, should not dismiss what is perhaps the single most impactful action that could be taken. 

4. ESG, and even Divestment, is not enough—Divestment is a good start, but not enough on its own. So, half measures like ESG are nowhere near sufficient. We need an investment strategy and University orientation that aligns with a socially just climate transition. Fiduciary responsibility is about the long term health of the institution—only an investment strategy that is life affirming and just ultimately achieves that criteria.

5. Depoliticizes the movement— In his webinar, President Gertler stated “we need to use less politically charged labels” to help other institutions in “scaling up their contribution to the battle against climate change.” The enormous effort to project a sense of calm, of reasonableness, and an apolitical facade is misguided at best. The climate fight is political; the fight for effective climate policy is political; the fight for Indigenous sovereignty is political; the fight for protection of climate refugees is political. Maintaining the status quo with some small modifications, refusing divestment, is just as overtly a political act as moving forward with divestment and a just transition. It’s not “a more nuanced approach,” as is being claimed. In the face of the climate emergency, maintaining the status quo is a radical and violent path. The reasonable path is one of just transition and rapid, deep transformation as part of a broader climate justice approach.

The crux of the effectiveness of FDR’s fireside chats was not the calming, reasonable presence of the president. They were effective communication tools because the scale and pace of his government’s actions matched the urgency of the crises faced.

It is that swift, bold action that we need from President Gertler, the University, and all our institutions. Projecting calm reasonableness while failing to take bold action is an affront to the University community and to all those facing the impacts of climate change today and in the future.

To read through some of the questions that were submitted by concerned students, faculty, and staff during this webinar that the President couldn’t (or wouldn’t) answer, visit this page.