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Universities respond to anti-fossil fuel calls

Social Change

© People & Planet UEA

The climate is changing. We cannot get out of this mess, but we can avoid going further in. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated that in order to remain below the ‘safe’ limit of a two-degree-Celsius rise in global warming by the end of this century, 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground.

If we want to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, we cannot burn more than a fifth of the world’s remaining coal, gas and oil. The fossil-fuel industry refuses to listen and continues to dig up and burn coal, oil and gas to the detriment of our future. However, people around the world, concerned for the welfare of our planet, are taking a stand and pushing for divestment from fossil fuels.

The fossil-fuel industry holds huge amounts of power over policy, blocking any serious climate action. And they are bankrolled by myriad institutions around the world.

From governments to churches, banks to universities, countless shareholders invest in fossil fuels. With the effects of climate change beginning to hit the entire world, and worse still to come, the maintenance of fossil-fuel investments should be considered morally abhorrent.

The aim of the divestment movement is to lobby institutions to remove their investments from the fossil-fuel industry, which will not destroy the industry, but will significantly reduce its power and create a stigma around fossil fuels.

The movement has been modelled on previously successful divestment campaigns, such as the anti-apartheid movement and the campaign against the tobacco industry. Both of these heavily involved students, who started lobbying their own universities. We want to replicate their achievements today.

A notable success took place in the wake of the People’s Climate March in September: the Rockefeller Institute and some of its shareholders made headlines by switching $50 billion of fossil-fuel investments to clean energy.

Hours later, Google and several other companies severed their ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a prominent oil-funded group which lobbies against climate action.

In May, Stanford University agreed to divest $18.7 billion from coalmining companies, in response to a strong student lobby. In October, Glasgow University became the first university in Europe to go ‘Fossil Free’ when it agreed to remove all its fossil-fuel investments, totalling almost $27 million, over the next five years. The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) could be next.

While Oxford University, with the biggest oil and gas investments of any university in Britain, has not yet agreed to divest, Oxford City Council has divested from fossil fuels in response to demands from students and professors at the university.

People & Planet began the Fossil Free campaign in September 2013, at the University of East Anglia (UEA), which has over $200,000 invested in fossil-fuel companies such as Shell and Rio Tinto.

The campaign has gained vast publicity among the staff and students of UEA; a petition to the vice-chancellor got over 1,000 signatures.

A wide range of methods was used to gain recognition for  the cause: a communications blockade halting all of the university’s communication systems, from telephone lines to emails and social media, ‘oil spill’ stunts, banners dropped across the campus and talks and panel discussions with guest speakers such as anti-coal activists from Colombia and Indonesia.

The university has declined requests to divest, citing  concerns over its reputation and the fact that it is not a campaigning organization. UEA is one of the top British universities researching climate change, making the faculty’s unwillingness to divest extremely ironic.

The global Fossil Free campaign was started by 350.org in 2012, and individual campaigns are now happening all over the world. In Britain, the divestment campaign is run by People & Planet, a student activist network which campaigns on environmental and social justice issues. Fossil Free campaigns in Britain are under way at 46 universities, including Edinburgh, Swansea, Birmingham, University College London and King’s College London.

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