‘Fossil Free’ is the way forward

Is ‘divesting’ the only way to save the world from climatic catastrophe?

'Fossil Free Warwick!' by Freya Verlander

‘Fossil Free Warwick!’ by Freya Verlander

Time is running desperately short for the environmental movement. It is globally recognised that two degrees warming is the upper limit for devastating climate change. This, according to a report by the Carbon Tracker In- itiative and an LSE institute, means that “60-80 percent of [proven] coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable”. In short, we must keep up to 4/5 of major fossil fuel companies’ proven reserves in the ground if we are to have a reasonable chance of avoiding climate catastrophe; yet, as the Economist noted last year, “neither public policies nor markets reflect the risks of a warmer world”.

’60-80 percent of [proven] coal, oil and gas reserves of listed firms are unburnable…’

Civilisation appears to be hurtling into the abyss. Gearing up for the climate summit at Paris next year, this movement has changed tack, taking the fight to the fossil fuel companies themselves. Led by Bill McKibben at 350.org, the Fossil Free campaign seeks to pressure institutions, prominently universities, to “divest”: remove their investments from the fossil fuel industry. Divestment is designed to de-legitimise the actions of the industry it targets, removing their “social license to operate” and engendering a shift in discourse, targeting the root cause of the problem and allowing the political space for genuine solutions to open up. Ten colleges and universities, and over 70 other churches, cities and foundations have already pledged to divest in the US.

Warwick’s Fossil Free group has been pressing hard to pass the motion at the All Student Meeting in favour of the campaign. Ultimately, it passed overwhelmingly with 65 per- cent in favour; but this is only the start. Now we have the support of the SU and the student body, we are beginning to formally pressure the university to remove their (roughly) £500,000 of investments from the industry. Doing so, however, will be tough. Promoting sustainability is difficult, but vital if we are to maintain the conditions for a decent survival for our children. There are also precedents at Warwick: in 1978, after over a year of campaigning, the student body eventually persuaded Warwick to divest from Barclays Bank when it was a major supporter of the apartheid regime. Similar actions are within the realm of possibility today, if only we can mobilise sufficient student support. The moral case for divestment is impeccable.

Promoting sustainability is difficult, but vital if we are to maintain the conditions for a decent survival for our children.

The fossil fuel industry are doing everything they can to ensure inertia on the part of public officials. Who’s Lobbying have documented the vast lobbying efforts on the part of the industry to water down or eliminate legislation in the UK that would temper the pace of warm- ing. A study in the academic journal Climate Change last year found that certain groups in the US, likely financed by the industry itself, are pumping $1 billion a year into denial of anthropogenic global warming. They are taking a leaf out of the book of the tobacco industry: as a tobacco representative wrote in a leaked memo from 1969, “doubt is our product…since it is the best means of competing with the “body of fact” that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy”. The horrors that await inaction on climate change are well documented in the scientific literature, and do not need to be repeated here.

The real issue is tactics, and if divestment is effective then it is a sound political strategy. Christiana Figueres, the UN’s climate chief, and Jim Yong Kim, the head of the World Bank, have both come out in favour of divestment for moral and financial reasons. As The Economist muses, “[t]he share prices of oil, gas and coal companies depend in part on their reserves. The more fossil fuels a firm has underground, the more valuable its shares. But what if some of those reserves can never be dug up and burned?” The answer is that their market value tanks, potentially by 40-60% according to conservative estimates by HSBC. If governments are serious about stopping one of the biggest threats to humanity we have ever seen, then the University of Warwick would be prudent to get out of the industry before it destroys itself.


Photos: Warwick Fossil Free Society

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