Divestment: The End Of The Beginning

This week, Newcastle University committed to divest from “non-progressive” parts of the fossil fuel industry. The report card: must do better.


Some of the Fossil Free campaign team. -Image - Harry Vann -

Some of the Fossil Free campaign team.
-Image – Harry Vann –

The logic of the divestment movement really could not be any simpler: if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage. The math of the movement is really quite simple too. The fossil fuel industry has more than 5 times as much carbon than even the most recalcitrant governments on the planet say is safe to burn. Let me be as clear as I possibly can – the fossil fuel industry is a rogue industry, and cannot be allowed to prioritise profit over people any longer.

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Fossil Free Campaigners put their ‘Heads in the Sand’ to replicate climate inaction by the British Government. – Image – Jordan Walker –

A divestment commitment is one expressed in financial terms. The baby steps taken in Newcastle this week recognise a fiduciary duty and ease financial concerns. But rather than call out the fossil fuel industry for violating indigenous rights, for propagating doubt in a scientifically sure debate and for desecrating the dreams of our children – the University made a  vague and obscure attempt to pat itself on the back. The wording of the commitment: to ‘preferentially choose fund managers who preferentially invest in low carbon technologies’, rings of vacuous posturing. Then the University move to make an undetermined demarcation between ‘progressive’ and ‘non-progressive’ oil and gas companies! To put it in simple terms – this is like a doctor telling a patient that smoking will kill, and that going part-time for five years is the best way to stop the rot. It’s a great start but this is not enough, not nearly enough.

Let’s go back to the simple part of the divestment movement. To avoid a 2 degree rise in global temperature – widely considered to be the ‘unsafe’ limit, we cannot release more than 565 Gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere. At our current rate, we blow this limit in 16 years. Let me be as clear as I can possibly be – if a company extracts and burns hydrocarbons as a business model – it accelerates this time limit. There is nothing, nothing at all ‘progressive’ about facilitating the destruction of the planet. And so again – if it is wrong to wreck the climate, it is wrong the profit from that wreckage.

Divestment is about much, much more than money. It is an extension of civic duty. The University is a leading light of academic research into sustainability. As a thought leader in the North East, it must now stand by this research.  Splitting up the oil and gas industry into disparate tribes: ‘non-progressive’ and therefore a presumed ‘progressive’ sector is to shun this duty. Without an immediate and unequivocal commitment to full divestment, the University remains as complicit as a climate change denier.

Petition - signed by more than 2,300 students.

Petition – signed by more than 2,300 students. – Image – Mark Sleightholm –

University is a vanguard of research and a place for moral leadership. As an academic institution, we hold the veil of respectability that cloaks the apocalyptic approach of the fossil fuel industry. Like an honorary degree we hand out the social license under which they operate. It is our moral obligation as students to demand more, much, much more. We are the children this industry spits on. We are the generation that will not get bailed out. Full divestment, removal of rogue industry from our graduate fairs, demands for government to ban hydraulic fracturing and to grant no new leases, the creation of a zero carbon campus – all of these and more must be pushed for.

At an academic institution, we come together to invent the future. Everybody owns the great ideas and we can all engage with great thinkers. Great thinkers like Oscar Wilde, whose words came ringing to me this Monday – “Civil disobedience is the greatest human virtue.” We must remind ourselves of this when sharing the divestment news and celebrating the success of the divestment movement in Newcastle. By all means we should celebrate – but next, let’s escalate.

Divestment - It's only the beginning! - Image - David Jones -

Divestment – It’s only the beginning! – Image – David Jones –