A landmark victory for the Fossil Free movement
The University of Edinburgh’s new commitment to divest fully from fossil fuels not only marks a huge victory for the climate change movement, but is also a triumph of sustained student activism. As the first ‘Fossil Free’ investment campaign to exist in the UK, the ambitious divestment campaign at the University of Edinburgh has blazed a trail for other student activists towards the full divestment from fossil fuels of the third largest university endowment fund in the country.
After six years of student campaigning, the University of Edinburgh announced on Monday that, over the course of the next three years, it would pull its remaining investments in fossil fuels. This decision is huge: at over £1bn, Edinburgh’s is the largest UK university endowment fund to date to ditch fossil fuel investments entirely – only Oxford and Cambridge universities have larger endowment funds – so this marks an enormous victory for climate change campaigners.
Burning fossil fuels causes serious and dangerous climate change, the impact of which is being increasingly felt – the years 2014-17 were the hottest on record, and devastating weather events such as hurricanes and wildfires are becoming all the more common.
In order to prevent the extraction of more fossil fuels we simply cannot afford to burn, one environmentalist strategy has been to target the fossil fuel industry. The industry is worth trillions of dollars and the global divestment movement focuses on cutting funding to oil, gas, coal and tar sands companies by pressuring the large organizations that invest in them, such as banks, universities and councils. This campaigning is vital in making divestment happen, as powerful fossil fuel companies employ forceful lobbying of their own, and these investments provide, for now at least, a reliable income. However in the long term the overvaluation of fossil fuel reserves means that the bursting of the so-called ‘carbon bubble’ could very easily cause another major economic crisis.
Although divestment pledges are often made out to be benevolent acts, financial interest always outweighs other considerations unless public pressure is applied.
The divestment movement has seen a recent string of successes, with New York City council last month pledging to divest its pension funds of $5bn in fossil fuel investments, and on the same day Edinburgh released its divestment statement Sussex University also announced plans to divest, making a total of 61 UK universities that have at least partially divested from oil, gas and coal.
Given the size of the fund divested as well as the symbolic impact of this announcement from such a well-regarded institution, Edinburgh’s divestment is an important step in the urgent fight against climate change, but it is also a testament to the strength of prolonged student activism on campus.
People & Planet Edinburgh is a student campaigning group that works as part of the national People & Planet network, which campaigns around the environment, human rights and social justice – another current campaign aims to win workers’ rights for those around the world currently labouring under sweatshop conditions.
With some student campaigning on-and-off for the past 15 years, the official campaign for divestment began in autumn 2012 with the goals of full divestment from fossil fuels as well as armaments, positive reinvestment in socially useful projects and transparency in how the university spends its money. The Fossil Free campaign was picked up by People & Planet nationally in 2013.
Nick Dowson, one of the campaign’s founders, says, ‘Up to then we’d felt like we’d taken on something huge, but when we began to see lots of others working on similar campaigns across the country it started to feel more achievable.’
The early stages of the campaign incorporated a large petition, a big event with environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, undertaking research, taking part in consultations and submitting motions and referendums to the students’ association. Campaigners raised awareness across campus through debates and events, and repeatedly raised the issue at university events and through press coverage.
The campaign came to a head when, in May 2015, students from People & Planet staged a 10-day occupation of the finance building. ‘After three years of campaigning, and fighting to have our voices heard over the university’s obscuring processes, this was clearly time for a more direct action,’ says Megan Atkins, 5th year Physics student and one of the activists who took part.]
During the occupation, the students organized pickets and die-ins as well as music sessions and speeches from MSPs, professors and even Nobel Laureate and authority on climate change Dr. Graciela Chichilnisky, with up to 60 people occupying the building. ‘As I was in my first year of university it was all very new to me’, says Natasha Ion, 3rd year student of History and French who also took part in the occupation. ‘I was blown away by the passion and commitment people had put into the campaign.”
The university initially refused to engage with the occupation and reacted by bringing in heavy-handed private security, leading to a student decision to end the occupation. However, the swell of student support and continued very visible action resulted in the university agreeing to talks and eventually to divest all its holdings in coal and tar sands at the end of that same month.
This partial divestment, though a massive breakthrough and the goal of the occupation, still left the university with investments in oil and gas companies, which until last Monday totalled £6.3m.
The past year of campaigning has involved more delicate negotiations with senior university figures. First-year Linguistics student Paula Lacey, who was involved in these recent talks, says: ‘Meetings with the University were sometimes frustrating, but over the course of the meetings they became more open with us which definitely allowed us to have more productive discussion.’ These discussions were reinforced by support from Student Association sabbatical officers. The campaign has worked from the start with the support of other individuals and groups, including other student societies, and environmentalist groups such as Friends of the Earth Scotland. And so after six years of campaigning, engaging in multiple strategies from direct action, to internal and external lobbying, to fact-to-face negotiations to public engagement, we finally received the overwhelming news this week that the university would fully divest from fossil fuels. This victory shows that generations of student activists, each building on the groundwork laid by those who came before, can enact impactful, long-term and positive change.
Reflecting on the campaigns’ original goals, it is clear that the fight is not yet over. Crucially – despite a high profile divestment from a maker of military drones components – the university has so far refused to make any commitment regarding its investment in the utterly oxymoronic concept of ‘non-controversial’ weapons.
Still, we must also allow ourselves and the generations of student activists before us a moment to celebrate. This is an enormous win, both for the climate change movement and student activism in general, and we should feel proud to have been a part of it.