Divesting from fossil fuels, one university at a time

Last week, environmentalists across the globe celebrated as the British Medical Association took the decision to stop investing in fossil fuels.

This push for the BMA to divest didn’t come out of the blue. It didn’t even come from the medical community, or Britain, at least initially. The Go Fossil Free Campaign which local health community activists and – notably – medical students drew on to lobby the BMA is several years in the making, starting with a July 2012 Rolling Stone article by Bill McKibben of 350.org; Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.

This argued the fossil fuel industry have five times as much oil, coal and gas on their books as climate scientists think is safe to burn and – unusually for a long, largely depressing piece on the numbers of climate change – went viral. It was quickly followed by a sell-out ‘Do the Math’ roadshow across the US (biodiesel bus, obviously) including ‘After-math’ parties for community organising working out how to push a call to ’divest’ from fossil fuels, just as campaigns in the past had divested from South Africa under apartheid. There was a focus on students, although targets include faith institutions, cities and individuals as well as universities. As McKibben has argued, again in Rolling Stone, universities should be taking a lead on climate change: they were where we first found out about climate change, they understand maths and, perhaps most of all, are full of young people with a stake in the future.

Before the BMA, the biggest headlines came with Stanford’s recent announcement that it would divest from coal but even Norway – one of the most oil-dependent countries in the world – is getting in on the game. In early May, Australia saw a Bank Day of Action where citizens closed down bank accounts to protest the funding of new coal projects. Dunedin recently became the first city in New Zealand to divest. Brighthelm in Brighton is the first church in the UK to divest. This month also saw a fossil free protest on streets of Oxford which brought together members of the town and local residents. The targets of this protest were not just academic, and neither were the participants.

A key criticism of the project is that the ’Do the Math’ message offers a faux simplicity and certainty which glosses over a lot of the politics and disagreements inherent to climate change. Moreover, there’s the question of how much it can achieve? If Stanford divesting from coal – one college, and arguably the easiest fuel to drop – is the biggest headline, there is a long way to go. The BMA have only passed support of its members, it is still up to officers to decide whether it is feasible and actual action may be small, or at least a while coming. Even if the various other institutions under the spotlight do divest, it’s unlikely to bring down the whole fossil fuel industry. This is especially true as the campaign shifted out of the US; differences in the economics of higher education in Europe mean university endowments are much smaller.

In reality, however, the campaign has always been much more than moving money, just as universities and churches are much more than endowments. They are places where people congregate and centres of cultural prestige. Similarly, Go Fossil Free uses divestment as a hook from which community organising around climate change may follow, as well as a signal that our moral and intellectual leader are worried about fossil fuels.

This latter point is partly why the BMA decision has been celebrated so highly by the green movement; it offers a way to argue that some of the world’s leading medics are worried about climate change as a health problem. Similarly, when nearly 100 Harvard academics wrote in support of the campaign, it gained global coverage which embarrassed their managers, but it also sent a signal to the rest of the world.

The divestment movement has also helped popularise the the carbon bubble, a concept developed by researchers in London to argue the true costs of climate change are not taken into account in a company’s stock market valuation.

It should also be remembered that this is a slow game. Divesting endowments takes time, let alone the larger social and cultural changes. And campus based campaigns can have a speedily spent half-life, as students graduate and leave. Whether the first flurry of excitement of Go Fossil Free will survive many more cycles of graduation ceremonies is yet to be seen. Still, for all their appeals to authority there is still a fair amount of space for change and bottom-up development of ideas inherent in the community organizing model. We may see more – not less – from the campaign in coming years, and it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the direction it takes comes from the energy of student activists, not a Bill McKibben essay or letter of Ivy League Profs.

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