Bill McKibben tells us to “do the math”. The father of the global fossil fuel divestment and founder of 350.org wants and urges us in equal measure to face the daunting facts of climate science. McKibben’s climate calculations scream at us to take action and abandon complacency as our planet hurtles towards an inhospitable state. As fossil fuel extraction continues to occur, humanity edges closer to pushing beyond the ‘safe’ 2 degrees celsius limit. This threat is real, the threat is growing. The facts remain – to keep this planet liveable, remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay where they are – the oil in the soil, the coal in the hole, the shale in the ground and the tar sands in the land. As students, we must look to the future.
That is where Fossil Free QUB comes into the equation. We formed in the early months of 2015, a diverse group of staff and students which seeks to mount pressure on Queen’s University to ‘divest’ from any investments held in corporations which extract and/or produce fossil fuels. Fundamentally this involves our institution selling any investments held in the fossil fuel industry, and reinvesting those funds elsewhere. We have secured the support of the University’s Students Union, which endorsed the campaign in May of this year following a Student’s Council vote. From that point, our campaign has moved from strength to strength – what originated as a few students on campus has grown to become a sizeable campaign, with support attracted from across the political spectrum. At this point, Fossil Free QUB has secured the official support of The Green Party of Northern Ireland, The Alliance Party, the SDLP, Sinn Fein, People Before Profit, The Workers Party and the PUP. Our support, however, is not constrained within the political sphere; support from civic society has been offered from groups such as Oxfam, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Belfast Trades Council, Friends of the Earth, Trocaire, No Fracking NI, Christian Aid and Trademark. Staff have been keen to voice their support for the campaign alongside students, with academics including Dr Geetha Srinivasan, Professor John Barry and Ciaran Carson adding their names to the growing voice which demands divestment. As our movement gains prominence, notable University alumni and public figures have joined our campaign including Sinead Morrissey, T.S. Elliot prize winner and Belfast’s first ever poet laureate, Bill McKibben himself, and leading socialist intellectual and political commentator Noam Chomsky. It is clear that our support has grown substantially, and will continue to grow.
Campaigns like ours draw inspiration from the movement which targeted companies operating in South Africa during apartheid in the 1980’s, and we certainly aren’t alone. Hundreds of global, national and local campaigns are arguing for fossil fuel divestment. Thanks to those campaigns, several universities and public institutions have divested. Notable divestors include the British Medical Association, The World Council of Churches, The Guardian Media Group and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The University of Glasgow became the first university to divest from fossil fuels in October 2014. Since then, several universities have followed. As staff members, notable alumni and Queen’s students, we are proud to support a world-leading institution. In September 2014, $50 billion had been divested from fossil fuels. By September 2015 the figure stood at $2.6 trillion. This is the fastest growing grassroots campaign on the planet, and we at Fossil Free QUB believe it is time that our University decided to take its place on the right side of history. Dozens of American universities, such as Stanford and Syracuse, alongside several Russell Group universities such as Oxford and UCL have divested. To Queen’s, we say “now it’s your turn”.
The University’s investment policy for long term equity investment was last reviewed in October 1998. Interestingly, the policy allows consideration to be given to investments of an ethical nature. Indeed, investment advisors have been advised that “if more than one investment of similar merit is available the manager should opt for the one which has the most ecological or environmental attraction.” We know that Queen’s invests in fossil fuels. How much it invests, and exactly where this money goes, is at this point unclear. QUB’s latest annual accounts show endowment funds of approximately £52m. Despite the fact that this is a huge amount of money, no details are publically available as to where these investments are held. On average, ~4% of UK University endowments are invested in fossil fuels. Based on this information, we can roughly estimate QUB’s fossil fuel investments at £2.1m.
I made a freedom of information request in late 2014 for details of Queen’s investments. In response to this request, I was politely told to sling my hook. I appealed, and again the University declined. On appeal however, Queen’s provided some details as to where the endowments are invested. From this glimpse into the financial bowels of the University, we established that Queen’s invests in the Legal and UK Index Trust, which currently has
significant investments in oil and gas – with 5.6% of this fund invested in Shell, and 3.9% in BP. Bingo! The freedom of information appeal is ongoing, and is currently with the Information Commissioner’s Office. We hope for a decision which will force the University to fully disclose its investments. Its reluctance to do so suggests there may be other horrors to be undiscovered (e.g. arms or tobacco).
There are a number of arguments for fossil fuel divestment, the clearest of which is ethical. The extraction, production and use of fossil fuels leads to untold7 deaths and illnesses every year. Climate change, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuels threatens health and human rights such as such as the rights to life, food, water and shelter. Furthermore, the consequences of climate change are profoundly unjust; the richest countries in the world have largely caused the problem, whilst it is the world’s poorest who suffer the most from its effects, and this suffering will intensify if we do not mobilise to combat this issue. The ethical logic of fossil fuel divestment is that investing in, and profiting from climate disaster is immoral and unjust.
What strengthens our campaign is that we do not make our case on ethical grounds alone. Fossil fuel divestment makes economic sense too. The industry is currently valued on the premise that all of their fossil fuel reserves can be used – but McKibben’s ‘math’ shows this to be a reckless assumption. Sensible action on climate change should limit extraction – meaning that fossil fuel investments risk becoming overvalued ‘stranded assets’. QUB must divest to avoid being caught out, losing the value of its investments when the ‘carbon bubble’ bursts.
Ethical and economic arguments aside, this is an issue of consistency for Queen’s. As the marketing slogan daubed over campus boasts, “We are exceptional!”. Queen’s has a rich history in human rights and medical research – yet our rights and health are endangered by the University’s ethically suspect investment strategy. The University is also committed to becoming a ‘low carbon organisation’. The inconsistency between aiming to reduce its own emissions, while simultaneously investing in Shell and BP question the sincerity of its climate commitment. And so, our moral battle with the fossil fuel investment continues. After a lot of hard word, our campaign has gained prominence both on, and off campus. ‘Divestment 101’ saw a full house in an organised public meeting on campus, in which staff and students engaged with each other to further the campaign. Our first demonstration saw the gates of the University crowded with activists committed to a carbon-friendly future. An all-student referendum saw a massive victory for the student body as an overwhelming 83.2% of voters voiced their support for fossil fuel divestment. At this stage, however, our battle has just begun. Following the publication of a 47 page academic report, the public support of dozens of senior academic staff, political parties, charities and faith groups and the success of the student referendum, Queen’s have refused our demands. The University has heard the case for divestment, and unlike their Russell Group contemporaries have remained firm in their profiteering from environmental destruction. They have, however, agreed to a review of their ethical investment policy, which will take 6-9 months. This is completely unacceptable, and is an attempt to fob off our campaign and to fool students into thinking the University are acting on their concerns.
Fossil Free QUB is part of a global campaign with political goals. Divestment won’t solve climate change itself – but it creates the conditions for strong global action and regulation of the fossil fuel industry. Divesting challenges the industry’s legitimacy and opens the political space for strong climate action which tackles the business as usual approach to fossil fuel extraction head-on. As Bill McKibben recently put it: “if the fossil fuel industry fulfills its business plan, the planet will break”. We can’t let this happen: join us to confront and change this business plan.
Niall Coleman is an activist with Fossil Free QUB, a campaign that calls for QUB to pull all investment from fossil fuels, you can follow the campaign on Twitter @FossilFreeQUB or on Facebook (Facebook.com/FossilFreeQUB)