Academics back University fossil fuel divestment

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Hundreds of Oxford students, academics and alumni have signed an open letter in an attempt to pressure Oxford University to divest from fossil fuels.

Addressed to Vice Chancellor Andrew Hamilton, the letter urges the University to move towards divesting its £3.8bn endowment from fossil fuels, and is backed by OUSU and twenty seven college common rooms.

The letter begins, “As Oxford academics and staff concerned about climate change, we call on our university to divest its endowment from the top 200 companies involved in the exploration, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels.

“We believe Oxford should do this for three main reasons: (I) To demonstrate support for its own scholars; (II) To show leadership in a time of unprecedented transition; (III) To honour its fiduciary duties.”

The current divestment campaign arrived at Oxford last October, when students introduced the international campaign ‘Fossil Free’ to the University. The campaign follows in the footsteps of other successful divestment campaigns such as the anti-apartheid movement that pressured organisations into divesting from corporations doing business in South Africa.

The Oxford University Fossil Free campaign states its goals as being to “Systematically evaluate carbon risk across the entire investment portfolio”, to shift “investments away from high-risk carbon intensive assets and toward low-carbon opportunities”, and to “Remove from its portfolio all direct investments in coal and tar sands oil assets as soon as possible” (in practice, this means to blacklist companies with ten per cent or more of their probable or proven reserves in coal or tar sands extraction).

Recently, the campaign has garnered un-precedented support — 100 Oxford academics, 300 alumni and over 2000 students have now signed the open letter urging the University to divest.

Campaign signatory Professor J. Doyne Farmer, who is also co-director of Complexity Economics at the Institute for New Economic Thinking, explained, “Science makes it clear that use of fossil fuels needs to stop as soon as possible. It is technologically feasible to replace fossil fuels in a short time if we only resolve to do so. Oxford University should show leadership by divesting from fossil fuel companies and supporting alternatives, and encouraging others to follow.”

The Socially Responsible Investment Review Committee (SRIRC) has subsequentlybegun a broad consultation inviting stakeholders within the University to express their views on the issue. The committee met in June, and later this month the committee will convene to discuss the matter, with the expressed goal of drafting a proposal for the University Council.

Ellen Gibson, Chair of OUSU Environment and Ethics, told Cherwell, “I am delighted at the huge growth in support for the Fossil Free campaign.

“We have been campaigning on divestment for over a year now and it’s great to have such a wealth of support from such diverse sources behind us. I only hope that the University takes this into account in its consultation; its time Oxford listened to the voices telling it to take a leading role in the fight against climate change.”

The campaign has not been without its critics; some have highlighted the substantial research that fossil fuel companies do into renewable forms of energy. Gibson responded to this criticism, however, by explaining, “It must be said that, although these companies do some research I’m sure, they also continue to actively explore and research into increasingly risky and damaging fossil fuel sources, as well as lobbying to ensure that regulation can’t prevent them burning existing reserves.

“Not only are fossil fuel companies unethical in terms of their product but also in terms of their methods, and until their corporate power is reigned in and their human rights abuses recognised I cannot see how investment in such companies is an advisable way forward.”

It is also feared that by divesting, academic posts and programmes, as well as student support programmes, will suffer due to loss of funding. Gibson however disagreed, explaining, “I would say that fossil fuel companies have a lot more to gain from their partnerships with Oxford than we do; they gain access to brilliant young talent, resources and— importantly — a social license to operate. These companies would not give up these opportunities which keep them alive.”

When asked how the campaign could progress, she told Cherwell, “We are looking to expand our student participation and mobilise the student body as a whole to get behind us.

“If we can demonstrate to the University that this is an issue which isn’t going to go away any time soon, it greatly increases our credibility and bargaining power.”

The University declined to comment. 

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