The Divestment Decision Places Cambridge on the Wrong side of History

On the 8th of June, the University Council voted against divestment from fossil fuels. This vote reinforces every negative stereotype about Cambridge – that it is elitist, old-fashioned and, ultimately, run in the interests of corporations rather than its staff, students and science. This vote shows a blinkered vision for the future. This vote places Cambridge on the wrong side of history.

Cambridge chose to act in the interests of corporations and to ignore climate victims. The CEO of BP issued a veiled threat in late April, calling for Cambridge to ‘come to its senses’ over divestment, given that BP invests significant amounts in research at the University. Contrast this message to the letter from the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, the real-life victims of climate change, petitioning Cambridge to divest from fossil fuels.

The Ogoni people live in Nigeria’s Niger Delta, an oil-rich region that has suffered extensive environmental damage as a result of Shell’s activities. Friday’s rejection of divestment showed Corporation Cambridge choosing to turn a blind eye to the fact that the victims of climate change, which the University has sponsored, are disproportionately people of colour in the global south.

The University Council’s decision was not just a rejection of full divestment. They rejected any form of divestment, even the half-hearted compromise proposed by the Divestment Working Group report, to invest 10% of the endowment in Environment Social Governance (ESG) funds.

The campaign for divestment has been spearheaded by Cambridge Zero Carbon Society who have, over the last three years, built a movement that has reached hundreds of people. Zero Carbon have campaigned via democratic channels, pushing for Regent House to pass a Grace in favour of divestment from fossil fuels. This was eventually passed in January 2017 and resolved that ‘none of the University’s Endowment Funds should be invested directly or indirectly in companies whose business is wholly or substantially concerned with the extraction of fossil fuels’.

However, the University showed complete disregard for the democratic process by failing to follow through with the Grace and divest from fossil fuels. Pressure for divestment has been maintained via democratic channels – Zero Carbon has engaged with the Working Group, continued to petition the University Council, published major reports, passed CUSU, JCR and MCR motions, organised academics’ open letters and harnessed support from numerous prominent figures, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, Shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbot and eminent scientists Sir Thomas Blundell and Sir David King.  

There has been significant noise from all sides on the issue, most notably debating the methods best used to campaign for divestment. Some have criticised the use of direct actions as performative and failing to highlight the economic arguments for divestment. Direct actions have included a spoof oil spill, a mock wedding between Shell and the University, a banner-drop at the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race, chalk-spraying of Senate House, occupying Greenwich House, the University’s administrative hub, and three students undertaking a six-day hunger strike. After three years of silence and inaction from the University on divestment and, after democratic channels have been exhausted and ignored, direct action is the only option left.

Despite this debate about the methods used, students and staff are united behind divestment itself, and the science clearly aligns with this - last week Cambridge University published a study warning of the impending carbon bubble and recommending divestment as both ‘prudential and necessary’. Cambridge’s rejection of divestment disregards its students, staff and science, and places the University firmly on the wrong side of history.

Will fossil fuels power the future? No. Given this, should Cambridge University be investing an estimated £377 million in fossil fuel industries? No. Over half of UK universities have now committed to full divestment. Should Cambridge do the same? Undoubtedly. The decision should have been a no-brainer.

Finally, where does this leave Zero Carbon and the campaign? This will not be the end because it cannot be the end. If anything, the Council’s rejection of divestment generates even more of a need for campaigning, to ensure that this issue is not kicked into the long grass. Climate chaos is imminent and Cambridge cannot continue to be complicit.

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