Today the student movement made history by announcing that more than half of UK universities have committed to divest from fossil fuel companies. Since 2012, students have campaigned to marginalise companies like Shell and BP which profit from climate breakdown.
The campaign, supported by the National Union of Students,People & Planet and Students Organising for Sustainability UK, has shown the power of students taking collective action. The University of Glasgow was the first UK university to divest in October 2014, and was soon followed by major divestments after sustained campaigns at institutions including Warwick, Sheffield, King’s College London, Edinburgh and Durham. The 50% mark was reached when the University of York became the 77th UK university to divest.
As we celebrate this moment, we should also reflect on how it has taken us so long to get here. We should ask why globally important universities including Oxford and Cambridge still refuse to move their money out of all fossil fuels.
Despite growing declarations of climate emergency, 50% of UK universities remain invested in the principle profiteers of the climate crisis. At a time when Australia burns in the bushfire crisis and climate deniers remain in positions of power across the globe, this lack of action is unforgivable.
The social licence of the fossil fuel industry has already been significantly damaged. We’ll now use this moment as a springboard to continue campaigning until the whole university sector has divested and the fossil fuel industry can no longer operate.
The need to keep up the pressure on these companies couldn’t be clearer. Indigenous and frontline communities are still fighting for their rights in response to the way these transnational corporations operate in their communities. The First Nations continue their decades-long resistance against tar sands expansion in Canada, while the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People in the Niger Delta are still fighting Shell’s business model which, we believe, causes dispossession and destruction across the region. Our solidarity with impacted communities is crucial.
The support for fossil fuel imperialism by the UK government underlines our imperative to act here too. In Argentina, bilateral trade agreements with the UK support the business ventures of companies like BP. Here, BP operates through its part-ownership of Pan American Energy (PAE) and is involved with the exploitation of Vaca Muerta, one of the world’s largest shale oil and gas reserves. Multinational oil companies are acting in violation of the rights of the Mapuche indigenous people, who have not given consent for the extraction that destroys their ancestral home to take place.
The government remains an active participant in the exploitative business models of oil companies overseas. This is particularly concerning at a time when new fossil fuel infrastructure needed to stop being built by 2017 to remain within the 1.5 degree parameter the Paris Agreement identified as a limit. As students and universities we can keep the pressure on by ensuring civil society is fully divested from the fossil fuel industry.
Universities are meant for the public good and so must lead the way in displaying how the UK takes responsibility for our actions in the world. They should be at the forefront of making the links between the struggles for climate justice and other social justice issues. The universities that have divested should use that commitment as a platform to intervene in the fight against land dispossession by fossil fuel companies and struggles against racist, forced deportations. At their roots are a system built on exploitation, dispossession, empire, imperialism and colonialism.
The fossil fuel industry and its partners in corporate crime will continue to increase their resistance to all those fighting it. In light of that, so must we.