Changing the Conversation on Climate Change at Queen’s University Belfast
What is Divestment?
“Do the math!” urges Bill McKibben, father of the global fossil fuel divestment movement. McKibben’s ‘math’ is no simple algebra exercise – his call to calculation concerns a subject even graver than long division: climate science. The atmospheric arithmetic of our leading scientists warns us that only one third of the remaining global fossil fuel reserves can be burned if we want to keep climate change below the ‘safe’ 2°C threshold.
This is a subject which we cannot fail. Fossil fuels are “the fire in the oven destined to bake civilisation beyond recognition”. If warming exceeds 2°C, the impacts will be increasingly disastrous – the old ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse will not work. To keep the planet habitable, most of our fossil fuel reserves must remain buried:
The oil must stay in the soil, the frack in the crack, the coal in the hole, the shale gas in the grass and the tar sands in the land.
‘Divestment’ is the opposite of investment – it means selling stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are invested in companies involved in fossil fuel extraction or production. Inspiration comes from the movement which targeted companies operating in South Africa during apartheid in the 1980s. Divestment played a role in ending apartheid – it conveyed international disapproval of the racist policies of the regime, delegitimising the government and giving political leverage to the South Africans challenging oppression.
Fossil fuel divestment follows a similar logic. All powerful institutions rely on popular collective consent for their ‘social licence’ to operate – from oppressive states to fossil fuel companies. Naomi Klein argues that divestment reflects that fossil fuel companies, “have become rogue actors whose continued economic viability relies on radical climate destabilisation… any institution claiming to serve the public interest has a moral responsibility to liberate itself from these odious profits”. When respected public institutions such as universities divest, it sends out a strong message that fossil fuel extraction and production is no longer socially acceptable. Divestment changes the public conversation on fossil fuels, creating the space which allows for the difficult political decisions which need to be made to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Does QUB Invest in Fossil Fuels?
Oh you bet it does. However, QUB’s aversion to transparency meant it took almost a year to find out exactly how much is invested and where. Before we get to that, the first thing we found out is that QUB’s ‘ethical investment policy’ is hilarious. It states that,
If more than one investment of similar merit is available the manager should opt for the one which has the most ecological or environmental attraction.
It’s an ethical investment policy reader, but not as we know it. It restricts any consideration of the ethics of investment choices to environmental grounds. By implication, QUB’s investment managers cannot exclude investments on any other basis – so companies with links to conflicts or those with unsavoury human rights records are fair game. Additionally, ethical investments are not always as financially rewarding as their unethical counterparts. The profitability of investing in ‘vices’ such as, tobacco, gambling and booze is well understood by investors. QUB’s policy restricts any consideration of alternative investments to others which have similar financial ‘merit’. Basically, this ‘ethical investment policy’ leaves plenty of leeway for actual unethical investment. QUB would do well to heed environmental law professor Benjamin Richardson’s advice that truly ethical investment requires “adding values, not just value”.
Back to the investments hunt. Following a freedom of information request, a series of appeals, and ultimately a ruling from the Information Commissioner’s Office that Queen’s had been acting unlawfully by refusing to release what should be publically accessible information (both legally in terms of the University’s obligations under the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and by virtue of the fact that QUB invests large amounts of public money) – the university was forced into disclosure.
What a treasure trove! QUB employs two investment managers (Legal & General Investment Management and Cazenove Capital Management) to invest its endowment funds – a total of ~£83m – in a range of different funds and trusts. In this way, Queen’s invests ~£5.5m in many different fossil fuel companies such as BP (of the Deepwater Horizon 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico fame), Shell (whose activities in the Niger Delta “systematically contaminated a 1,000 sq km area of Ogoniland”), ExxonMobil (currently under investigation by the New York attorney general for allegedly lying to shareholders and the public about climate change), ConocoPhillips, Petroleo Brasiliero, Lukoil, Rozneft, Gazprom, Imperial Oil, PetroChina, Gibson Energy (involved in the production of oil from the Albertan tar sands in Canada – a project described by London academics Jennifer Huseman and Damien Short as a “slow industrial genocide” due to its devastating effects on the lives of indigenous Canadians), Total SA and Tullow Oil.
But it’s not just fossil fuels – uh-oh! Queen’s is quite the amoral investor – and its reluctance to disclose may have been evidence of a guilty conscience. There are other gems which we hope to publicise soon.
Other questionable investments include a number of tobacco companies (such as British American Tobacco, Imperial Tobacco, the Altria Group and Phillip Morris International – remember, Vice Chancellor Patrick Johnston is a renowned cancer researcher and QUB is a centre of excellence for cancer research), alcohol companies (SABMiller, Carlsberg Heineken and Diageo), ‘defence’ companies (Lockheed Martin, Raytheon – purveyors of missiles, the is it/isn’t it torture prison inmate control device ‘silent guardian’ and the monitoring equipment used in Guantanamo Bay to allegedly spy on defence lawyers – and BAE Systems), mining (Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton – the latter of which owns the Brazilian mine where a recent dam failure has led to “the worst mining accident in the country’s history”) and gambling (Las Vegas Sands and William Hill). The only ‘vice’ we were unable to find was pornography, which was a bit disappointing really.
Why Should Queen’s Divest?
Queen’s should get rid of its fossil fuel investments – the clearest argument for divestment is an ethical one. The extraction, production and use of fossil fuels leads to untold numbers and deaths and illnesses every year. Climate change, largely caused by the burning of fossil fuels, threatens our fundamental human rights to life, health, food, water and shelter. Its consequences present one of the greatest social injustices of our times; the richest countries in the world have largely caused climate change, yet it is the world’s poorest who suffer, and this climate injustice will intensify if business as usual continues. It is wrong to ruin our climate and it is wrong to profit from its destruction: it is ethically indefensible for QUB to keep investing in fossil fuels.
It’s easy to get all Shami Chakrabarti about climate change, but the economics of divestment support our case too. There is a strong business argument for divesting – even Alan Sugar would agree (probably). The fossil fuel industry is currently valued on the assumption that all of their fossil fuel reserves can be used – but climate science tells us that would be an unmitigated disaster. Eventually, climate politics will catch up with climate science – it must. A sensible international climate agreement will emerge which limits extraction, and fossil fuels will become overvalued ‘stranded assets’. Divestment avoids Queen’s being caught out when this ‘carbon bubble’ eventually bursts. In addition, several studies show that divestment can be done with little cost to investment returns, and some even suggest that there may even be positive financial effects for divestors. Divestment is prudent in light of carbon asset risk, and might even lead to better investment returns – why wouldn’t Queen’s divest?
Divestment is also an issue of consistency for Queen’s. As the marketing slogan daubed over campus crassly boasts, “We are exceptional!”. Queen’s has a rich history in human rights and medical research, and educates thousands of talented Northern Irish and international youths every year. The University is also committed to becoming a ‘low carbon organisation’ by reducing its own carbon emissions by 21% by 2020 (against a 2008 baseline). The inconsistency between QUB’s suspect investment portfolio and its laudable research agendas, educational activities and institutional commitments shouldn’t need spelled out. But just to be clear, QUB’s investments in Shell, BP and chums undermine its contribution to human progress made through research, jeopardises the future of the same students in which it has invested so heavily, and questions the sincerity of its pledge to become a low carbon organisation.
Investing in fossil fuels calls into question the fundamental purposes of a university – as the faculty at Stanford University asked,
If a university seeks to educate extraordinary youth so they may achieve the brightest possible future, what does it mean for that university simultaneously to invest in the destruction of that future?
Fossil Free QUB – The Story so far
Fossil Free QUB is a group of staff and students which is trying to persuade Queen’s to divest. We formed in early 2015, and we now have the support of QUB’s Students Union (who endorsed the campaign in May of this year following a Student’s Council vote); a barnstorming 83% majority in a student referendum (on a turnout of over 800 students) and QUB’s Convocation which voted to support our motion in November.
A range of leading academics and heads of school at the university, renowned public intellectual Noam Chomsky and cross-community political parties in Northern Ireland all signed our open letter urging the university to divest. In October, alongside the open letter, we submitted a 47-page academic report to QUB’s Investment Committee setting out our case, and held a large protest calling for divestment.
The response has been reasonably encouraging – Queen’s has agreed to undertake a ‘comprehensive review of the university’s ethical investment policy’ – which will take 9 months to complete. However, there is no guarantee that the review will lead to divestment, and the lengthy timeline is seen by some as an attempt to kick our campaign into the long grass. Conveniently perhaps, it will be reporting in June after most of the student population has left for the summer – lessening any chance of protests if QUB decides against divestment. Nine months does seem awfully long – particularly when you understand that Queen’s ethical investment policy is only 1 page long. As our recent occupation of the Senate meeting demonstrated, we will be keeping the pressure on Queen’s as the review progresses. Our support is growing and our voice is getting louder.
Fossil Free QUB is not alone. There are many global, national and local campaigns arguing for divestment right now. There have been many successes, 18 universities in the UK (such as Glasgow, Oxford and Warwick) and several public institutions (such as Bristol, Cambridge city council and Kirklees council) have made some form of commitment to divest. Other influential divestors include the British Medical Association, The World Council of Churches, The Guardian Media Group and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Maynooth has beaten Queen’s to become the first on the Emerald Isle to divest – and divestment campaigns are emerging at Trinity and Galway too. We must beat Ulster University!
We are part of the global campaign for climate justice. Divestment won’t solve climate change itself – but it is changing the conversation on fossil fuels. By doing so, it helps to create the conditions for strong global climate action and regulation of the fossil fuel industry – one of the roots of the climate crisis whose political strength urgently needs challenged. Divesting defies the legitimacy of the fossil fuel industry and tackles the extraction status quo head-on. As Bill McKibben explains: “if the fossil fuel industry fulfils its business plan, the planet will break”. Business as usual is not an option. We need to stop this madness: join us in confronting and changing this business plan.
What Can You Do?
JOIN US – get involved with the campaign and our actions.
SIGN our petition to ask Queen’s to divest from fossil fuels.
LIKE us on facebook.
FOLLOW us on twitter.
CONTACT us at fossilfreeQUB@gmail.com.
EMAIL the Vice Chancellor to express your support for divestment – firstname.lastname@example.org.
MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD – SUPPORT OUR CAMPAIGN!