A letter to Louise Richardson from the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign

The campaign's 170th letter to the vice chancellor, ahead of their divestment rally tomorrow

Following increasing calls for Oxford to fully divest from fossil fuels, the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign (OCJC) collected 169 letters to send to the vice chancellor penned by students, academics, and alumni alike. Their intention was to show the University and its senior management that many were concerned about the Oxford’s investment policies.

Below is the 170th letter of these letters, published exclusively in Cherwell, ahead of the campaign’s rally tomorrow.

Dear VC Richardson,

Thank you for taking the time to meet with members of the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign in May. We were heartened to hear that you think about climate change often and are concerned with the present and future impacts of a warming planet. However, we were disappointed by your opposition to fossil fuel divestment and the arguments you made to support that stance: we respond to them here. We ask you to read this letter, alongside the 169 others we shared with you, and consider the democratic mandate of your community and the 2014 Socially Responsible Investment Review Committee’s (SRIRC) recommendation to divest from fossil fuels.

You argued that: Divestment will not have any tangible impact against climate change; it’s better to focus on research and green campus initiatives.

The power of divestment lies not only in the financial risk that it poses to the fossil fuel industry, but more importantly in the role it plays in stigmatising it. Oxford’s own Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment described the stigma created by the global divestment movement as  “the most far-reaching threat to fossil fuel companies and the vast energy value chain”. The Smith School study linked divestment movements throughout history and the stigma they created to major political changes: most notably in Apartheid South Africa. After many years of political inaction on climate change, it is clear that more pressure on policy makers is needed. However, unless the fossil fuel industry’s disproportionate social and political influence is weakened, the scales will continue to favour fossil fuel companies.

The threat posed by climate change demands that we take action at all levels. The University is not on track to meet their carbon reduction target of 33% by 2020/21. The Environmental Sustainability report from 2016 revealed that in fact the university has increased its net carbon emissions by 3% since 2005/2006. For an institution as large and influential as the University of Oxford, there is an opportunity for both significant internal reduction of carbon emissions and a much wider symbolic stand. Divestment is not the single solution to the climate crisis, but it is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Oxford’s endowment is larger than all the other UK universities that have divested, so it is much more economically risky.

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Oxford’s endowment size and cultural influence make it all the more important that we divest, as it will inspire other institutions, and not only universities, to follow suit. There are numerous examples of institutions divesting much larger sums without economic ruination: NYC’s $189 billion pension fund (Oxford’s endowment represents approximately 3% of the NYC pension fund) and the University of California system ($9.8 billion) are only two. The University of Edinburgh, the UK’s third largest university endowment, divested fully from fossil fuels in February.

In the last few years, a record number of studies have demonstrated that fossil-free funds can achieve competitive returns. Furthermore, divesting may actually reduce the risk of holding devalued assets.  To keep warming below 2°C, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has shown that 68% of known fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. At Oxford’s Smith School, these vast reserves of unburnable carbon are considered ‘stranded assets’, because they are likely to see their economic life curtailed due to a combination of technology, regulatory and/or market changes. Why do we want to invest in fuels that will very soon become economic fossils?

Oxford receives many scholarships from fossil fuel companies, so we cannot divest.

Scholarships are hugely important for Oxford’s academic success and for its access efforts, and we would not want this damaged. However, these schemes guarantee companies a continued influx of graduates into their workforce; they are unlikely to discard this, even following divestment. Durham, Nottingham, and Bath Universities have all pledged to divest and have continued to receive BP scholarships and research funding. After the recent controversy over BP chief executive Bob Dudley’s remarks concerning Cambridge University’s divestment campaign, BP stated that its support of the University through scholarships was to be regarded as separate from Cambridge’s investment status.

Thank you for reading our letter. We hope you will agree that divestment need not harm the University; in fact, it would make it more financially stable going into the future. More importantly, a decision to divest would make Oxford a force for good, sending the message that one of the world’s most revered institutions (and training grounds for its leaders) is committed to a renewable-based future. A pledge to divest would be the best legacy you could possibly leave from your time as Vice Chancellor. We, and those who choose to work and study in Oxford in future generations, would be incredibly proud.

Yours sincerely,

Oxford Climate Justice Campaign

The campaign will hold a rally tomorrow at 4pm outside the Clarendon Building, urging the University and its colleges to divest.

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