The Tab sits down with students who occupied the Cambridge BP Institute

Students discuss climate anxiety, direct actions and the need for change

On Tuesday (17/05), members of Fossil Free Research (FFR) occupied the BP Institute in Cambridge demanding an end to research partnerships with fossil fuel companies. We sat down with Rowan Ibbotson, a first year Natural Sciences student to talk about her participation in the occupation and the FFR campaign as a whole.

The campaign

Fossil Free Research is a student-led campaign that has a presence in the United States and in the United Kingdom. They demand that universities stop accepting climate change, environmental and energy policy research funding from fossil fuel companies. FFR believes accepting funding “bolster[s] fossil fuel companies’ false claims that they are committed to science-led climate action.”

Image credit: Fossil Free Research

They also argue that partnering with these companies creates a “fundamental conflict of interest” that “jeopardises the integrity of this vital research.”

According to the campaign, “between 2017 and 2021 alone, Cambridge and Oxford received a combined total of £22 million from oil firms, making them top recipients of fossil fuel industry funding among UK universities”.  Tuesday’s occupation was linked with actions in Oxford, as well as in George Washington University in the United States.

Rowan shared that while the campaign is student-led, they are in “constant conversation” with academics and climate experts. Their open letter, which asks academics to support the demand for Fossil Free Research, has now been signed by over 700 academics internationally.

Rowan expressed that her involvement with FFR allowed her to find a “sense of purpose” through direct actions.

The occupation

One such direct action, of course, was the occupation of the BP institute (a university research centre funded by “oil giant” BP), which lasted 63 minutes. Each minute of the occupation represented each year since oil companies were first alerted to the “environmental dangers posed by their business model by scientists”.

Image credit: Fossil Free Research

They also aimed to highlight the IEAC’s statement that there “can be no new fossil fuel development or exploration of climate targets are to be met”. Rowan said that the occupation came “at the right time”, especially considering that BP will spend nearly 30 million pounds a day on new oil and gas projects over the next eight years, according to a Daily Mail article.

She further shared that the occupation wanted to draw attention to institutions of the University that are “hidden away” and serve to “greenwash for companies like BP”. For the occupiers to meet their aim, it was “very important that we were physically in that space” in a “completely non-violent” way to highlight the problems of the institution.

They were not there to convince anyone working at the institute to stop doing so, she said. Instead, they were there to inform students of the university of the hypocrisy of an institution that many had never heard of.

One of the ways they achieved this was focusing on symbolism – the occupation was full of speeches and performative art. The campaign shared, for example, that students “staged theatrical performances” depicting university officials’ silence being “bought” by figures representing BP.

Image Credit: Fossil Free Research

With respect to the occupation, Zak Coleman, Undergraduate President of the Cambridge Students’ Union, said, “The university expects its students to respect science and treat each other with compassion, yet it’s patterning with companies doing the exact opposite on a planetary scale: ignoring all scientific warnings and devastating communities across the world, especially in the Global South, in the process.”

A University spokesperson said, “The BP Institute, in line with the rest of the University, no longer conducts research on fossil fuel recovery except for one final legacy project that is near completion.

“The Institute is at the heart of pioneering new research for the energy transition, and continues to work with a range of partners on some of the most challenging problems involved in the transition to zero carbon energy including carbon capture and storage, geothermal power production, decarbonisation of heating in buildings, and battery technology.”

Climate activism in Cambridge

Rowan got involved with FFR very recently, and spoke to me about how it eased her sense of climate anxiety. Being extremely aware of the “destruction” to our planet but not being able to do anything is a feeling that “many of us” have gone through.

Climate campaigning is a great way to “channel that energy” positively and  feel like you’re part of a larger movement that is actually achieving change.

Addressing her fellow peers, Rowan encouraged students to get involved with climate activism in Cambridge. She’s found a “very valuable community” of like-minded students and staff through her work with FFR, and mentioned that there are many available opportunities for other students.

In particular, she talked about Cambridge Climate Justice and Cambridge Climate Society as examples of places to channel your energy.

There’s something for everyone in the climate activism scene at Cambridge, Rowan expressed, whether you’re focused on system-wide change or climate awareness.

The University of Cambridge and BP were contacted for comment. 

Featured image credits: Fossil Free Research

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