To Divest, or not to Divest: that is the question

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To Divest, or not to Divest: that is the question

John Bilton reports on Fossil Free UCL’s debate and finds the topic to be much more nuanced than it first seems

Should UCL withdraw its £21 million investment in fossil fuels? On the surface the answer is obvious: the scientific consensus is that using fossil fuels is dangerously altering our climate, so surely UCL has no business supporting companies that do so. However, this debate has shown that the answer to this question is much more nuanced than that.

Before the debate the audience was polled: 16 people were undecided, three people were against divestment (including the two debaters arguing against it) and the huge majority (the chair – Richard Horton, editor of the prestigious medical journal The Lancet – didn’t need to bother counting them) were for it.

The arguments for divestment are well-known and were eloquently given. The idea that it would be better for all if fossil fuels were left in the ground was not contested.

The idea that it would be better for all if fossil fuels were left in the ground was not contested.

Chris Rapley, Professor of Climate Science, summed matters up by saying that there is 40 percent more carbon in the air now than pre-Industrial Revolution, and that in under 27 years the Earth’s temperature would raise by two percent – the line between ‘dangerous’ and ‘extremely dangerous’. He finished however by reminding the audience that it is not helpful to “demonize” people working for fossil fuel companies – having met many of them himself, he can say that while some of them are bad, there are plenty of good people there too.

Hugh Montgomery, Professor of Intensive Care Medicine, said that fuel companies have to make a profit under current market forces; the solution, therefore, is to change market forces to make renewable energies more profitable than fossil fuels. He finished his argument with the memorable line, “The scientific case is strong, the fiscal case is strong, the moral case is inarguable”.

Jane Rendell, Professor of Architecture, made a hopeful argument based on similar principles, saying that “As international treaties on climate change become binding, investment in fossil fuel companies will become unprofitable.” She also made the point that the work of fossil fuel companies puts the lives of future generations in peril, and so investing in them is “inconsistent with UCL’s key strategies.” Finally, she said that academic freedom (by this point in the proceedings it was mentioned that divesting in fossil fuel companies could implicitly block some UCL academics from researching certain subjects) by asking if academic freedom was worth the misery caused to people in around the world by, for example, mining companies, many of which have shoddy human rights records.

It is not helpful to “demonize” people working for fossil fuel companies

Jane Holder, Professor of Environmental Law applauded students, now – thanks to tuition fees – lamentably “consumers” instead of “citizens” of their university, getting involved in the divestment movement “in a direct and sometimes oily way”. She also commended seven law students at Harvard who are in the process of suing their university for investing in fossil fuel companies.

Alan Penn, Dean of the Bartlett faculty of the Built Environment, speaking against divestment, pointed out that our student loans are paid for partly by the profit from North Sea Oil, and that the USS pension, to which about a third of the people in the room were entitled, made its largest investment in Shell and its third largest investment in British American Tobacco; and yet we all take our student loans and pensions, so is it not hypocritical of us to worry about where our institution’s money goes?

Penn also said that if all the divestment movements could pool their money, they need only buy 51 percent of an energy company to change its direction, and so change the balance of power from fossil fuels to renewable energy. As was pointed out later by Hugh Montgomery however, this seems rather far-fetched; it would cost about £40 billion to buy 51 percent of the shares in BP.

If you really want to make a change, you should study thermodynamics because “you can make a much bigger change than by smothering yourself with oil”

Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of Engineering Sciences, made the stronger argument against divestment. He showed that the question was much more nuanced than it first seemed: he suggested that it was UCL’s investment in fossil fuel companies (which in the grand scheme of things is a drop in the ocean) which allowed it to work closely with these companies and access their technology in an effort to find better, more efficient ways of using sustainable energy.

Finkelstein continued, pointing to an “underlying anti-capitalist tinge to the debate” (of fossil divestment at UCL in general, not this one in particular), linking it to the anti-nuclear debate in the ‘80s which, justifiably or not, held back the development of nuclear energy “for more than a decade” – a shame, given that it is now our most viable alternative to fossil fuels. He finished by calling for a broader political debate about the price we are prepared to pay for a carbon-free economy, and telling students that if they really want to make a change, they should study thermodynamics because “you can make a much bigger change than by smothering yourself with oil”.

At the end of the debate, there were still three people against divestment, while four were undecided (though one had changed from pro-divestment); the huge majority were still in favour of divestment. However, the standard of debate tonight was very high from all sides, and hopefully people will start to view the matter in a more nuanced way. If we’re lucky, some may even decide to study thermodynamics.

Featured image credit: Fossil Free Logo

To Divest, or not to Divest: that is the question Reviewed by on March 26, 2015 .

John Bilton reports on Fossil Free UCL’s debate

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