Cambridge Loose on Climate Change

The Tab examines the contradictions in Cambridge’s attitude towards Climate Change.


The Tab has been doing some Maths: across Cambridge colleges over £1 billion’s worth of investments are held in fossil fuel and mining companies – excluding the University’s £1.7 billion endowment fund which they’re keeping secret.

The carbon links between fossil fuel companies and the University are not merely financial either. The Head of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering is a Director at BP. David Eyton, a senior BP employee, described ‘the exceptionally strong bond between BP and Cambridge.’

Clear conflicts between rhetoric and practice can be found. Former Master of Trinity, Lord Martin Rees, has spoken publicly on the topic. This year Lord Rees delivered a speech at the British Science Festival, arguing that carbon emissions reduction is essential if we are to avoid the grave social consequences of environmental destruction. Despite their former Master’s views, Trinity holds over £620,000 worth of shares in: Occidental, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron, BG Group and Total.

Bill McKibben runs, a grassroots climate-change organization. Rumor has it he wrote the first climate change book ever. He explained to The Tab the conflict in Cambridge between educational programs and investments. ‘I do think there’s a conflict. If one is concerned about sustainability and the greatest threat to it (climate change) one should not be invested in the companies that drive this threat. The latest report of the IPCC…makes clear that we have to leave most of the carbon we know about in the ground [80% in fact]; the business plans of the fossil fuel companies call for digging it up.’

Cambridge University’s mission statement expresses a ‘concern for sustainability and the relationship with the environment’. Rio Tinto, the global mining company, does too: Wherever possible we prevent, or otherwise minimise, mitigate and remediate, harmful effects of the Group’s operations on the environment.’

Residents of Papua New Guinea do not agree. They suggest Rio Tinto are, in fact, putting the gritty in integrity. In the San Francisco US Court of Appeals, residents argued that on Papua New Guinea’s luscious island Rio Tinto purposefully assisted ‘in the commission of violence, injury, and death, to the degree necessary to keep its mines open.’ Cambridge Colleges hold a shade over £550,000 worth of direct and indirect shares in Rio Tinto.

Rio Tinto’s Freeport mine in West Papua

Nor does the University’s mission statement sit well with college-wide investments in Glencore. A 2012 BBC Panorama investigation filmed minors working deep underground, without any safety or breathing equipment, extracting copper. One worker, eyes downcast and his face protected by his hood, said he was 10.

Despite the chief executive of Glencore’s protestation that these workers were not Glencore employees, Glencore was, and remains, its owner and continued to receive copper from the mine at its Zambian refinery. Did Glencore know of the copper’s dirty origins? Did they bother to ask? Did those colleges who collectively own £485,000 worth of direct and indirect shares in Glencore bother to ask?

Colleges are not bound by the University’s mission statement. As we are frequently reminded, they are independent legal entities. The Tab hopes to reveal more details of the precise financial relationship between University and colleges.

But the question here is one of University-wide emphasis – or hypocrisy. Across the University, curriculums educate students on climate change, potential solutions and the politics of these solutions. Cambridge tends to focus on the amelioration rather than propagation of climate change. The University also funds the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, which sends students to UN Climate Change conferences.

At the same time over £2,400,000 worth of shares are held across the colleges in Royal Dutch Shell and BG Group, two of the largest global fossil fuels companies.

Over the past 50 years Shell have spilt an estimated 1.5 million tons of oil in the Niger Delta, Nigeria. That’s equivalent to around one ‘Exxon Valdez’ spill every year. This sloppy behaviour has led to the filing of a lawsuit against Shell in the Netherlands. Shell claims to clean up every oil spill, thoroughly, that results from its activities. In fact The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has found such claims to violate advertising rules. Pembroke, Corpus Christi, Peterhouse, Lucy Cavendish, Murray Edwards, St Edmunds and Trinity are amongst the colleges who invest, indirectly or directly, in Shell.

The Exxon Valdez spill caused devastation to marine life

There are shadier links too. Novatek and Gazprom are two of the world’s largest oil producers, based in Russia. On the board of Novatek sits Gennady Timchenko, Putin’s trusty pal. Coincidentally Novatek happens to be the only other Russian oil company allowed to export oil, aside from the state behemoth Gazprom. Through JP Morgan Russian Securities, in which Peterhouse holds 69,000 shares, the college invests in both Novatek and Gazprom.

Bill McKibbon believes the problem is quite simple: ‘If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage.’ What’s the solution? ‘Sell the stock. This is not the only thing we need to do to fight climate change, but it is one thing.’

Rowan Williams, Master of Magdelene, has also spoken in favour of drastic action to avoid climate change. In September of this year, Dr Williams signed Operation Noah, a Christian initiative, which explicitly called for the Church of England to rid itself of investments in fossil fuel companies. Unfortunately we could not investigate whether Magdalene College’s investments conformed to their Master’s principles as, unlike the majority of colleges, they refused to disclose details of their investments. Their special portfolio constitutes ‘a trade secret’.

Despite the master of Magdalene’s support for Operation Noah, the college refuse to disclose their investments

Not all agree. Doug Crawford-Brown, Director of Cambridge Centre for Climate Change Mitigation Research (CCfCS), said ‘I would hope that in the long run (next decade or two) all organisations will begin to invest in renewables…but that doesn’t make it wrong for them to have those investments today… Having said that, I do believe educational institutions should begin to wean themselves off fossil fuel investments.’

What’s certain is that in 2007 the University signed the Cambridge Climate Change Charter. This ‘acknowledges the increasing impact of climate change and makes a commitment to tackle this issue.’ Investments across colleges do not sit well with this commitment. An internal report in 2012 by the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society called for ‘a new, formal and up-to-date statement of the University’s position on the issue.’ The Tab agrees.