Making environmentalism political at the University of Cambridge

Monday 18-07-2016 - 12:17

A guest blog post from Angus Satow of the Zero Carbon Society, telling the story of how divestment made environmentalism political at the University of Cambridge.

In the summer of 2015, myself and several other students resolved to start a fossil fuel divestment campaign at the University of Cambridge.

We had met in first year and considered how best to get students engaged in the climate crisis – there were plenty of environmental campaigners doing amazing things at Cambridge, but none that truly sought to engage students on a mass scale, and crucially none that were political. Divestment necessitates mass student engagement, and is a great starting point for a people-powered movement that will take on the corporate lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry. There were so many reasons why we needed one at Cambridge.

Most importantly, the university had begun a review of its (fairly non-existent) ethical investment strategy, which presented us with a huge opportunity. By getting a divestment decision at one of the most famous and prestigious universities in the world, we could be sure of widespread media coverage and a major blow against the fossil fuel industry. Like so many other students we were intensely aware of the urgency of the climate crisis, the fact that governments were not acting, and that this was an opportunity to demonstrate people power and force a just transition to a fairer, people-powered and more sustainable world.

It was our duty to fight for the victims of climate change, overwhelmingly in the Global South, and overwhelmingly without a say in the political system.

But we knew it was an uphill task, and we only had one year to achieve it. We began at freshers’ fair, held a talk by a Guardian journalist covering the #KeepItInTheGround campaign and screened the eye-opening film This Changes Everything. Slowly but surely we built up a committed campaign team ranging between 30-50 members, with a core of about 10-15.

We launched in November with a petition and a banner drop off several iconic Cambridge bridges. It was amazing how the petition took off – in less than 48 hours we reached 1,000 signatures, and now it’s more than doubled that.

Our campaign had three strands: direct action, research and lobbying. We held various protests throughout the year: marching before the Paris summit, drawing our climate red lines across all of Cambridge, dressing up as carbon bubbles. This all culminated in a huge march in exam term which you can see in the photo above, when we got around 300 students to turn out for a march, addressed by the local MP, a local councillor, a member of University Council and our own campaigns officer, Alice Guillaume.

It was at this point we released our open letter, part of the formidable coalition that got behind us. 100 academics and senior Cambridge figures joined various societies in calling for the university to divest. Our motion at students' union council - a democratic body made up of college undergraduate and graduate representatives, as well as faculty and liberation campaign representatives - had already passed overwhelmingly, by 33 votes to 1. Combine that with the 2,200-strong petition, it’s safe to say – students spoke up for divestment.

We also built up a strong case, though the reality of 80 per cent of fossil fuels needing to be left in the ground should have sufficed. Throughout spring term another of our tireless team – Tim Lornie – headed up a team which together produced a comprehensive 74-page report. With contributions from professional economists, and a foreword from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, this was a formidable venture. We made clear why climate change requires urgent action, why not to act would be a contradiction of the university’s mission statement, and also why it’s in the university’s best financial interests to divest, and escape the impending carbon bubble.

However, this proved to be yet another example of how the university ignored the student voice. We were not even allowed to present this report, despite the Working Group’s founding statement referring to developments with regard to fossil fuel investments. This was in keeping with the university’s constant belittling of our campaign. We were told that – despite our huge array of support – we were just ‘one stakeholder’, that the working group should not be considering ‘particular sectors or themes’ (then what on earth was it for?), and that the 2°C global warming limit agreed on by every single country at COP21 was ‘arbitrary’.

When it came to decision time, senior figures from the university failed to respond to us. We met only once with university administrators, despite many requests. On 13 June University Council, led by figures at the very top, refused to divest. They did, however, rule out coal and tar sands investment, demonstrating that student pressure can and does achieve change. That concession, reported in the national media, would not have happened without us.

It was always going to be a tall order, but I’m proud of all that we’ve achieved. Climate is right at the fore of student discussion at Cambridge, and that’s down to us. We’ve achieved tangible change, and we’ll fight for more next term. At Cambridge academics have the final say, and we’re confident they’ll vote for divestment.

We want to be in a university which puts its money where its mouth is, which says No to destructive fossil fuels and instead invests in renewables, and takes advantage of the huge array of exciting opportunities. It could invest in greenproofing its own buildings (something called a Green Revolving Fund), could be at the forefront of fossil free investment portfolios (BlackRock would be a good start) and lead on ethical investment.

Instead it has gone down the tried, tested, and utterly failed route of shareholder engagement. An open letter to fund managers will not make a dent in the climate crisis. ExxonMobil will not change its stripes – it proved that when its shareholders overwhelmingly rejected modest climate demands at its Annual General Meeting a couple of months ago.

Change comes from below, not above. Workers’ rights, universal suffrage, civil rights – they were not granted by benevolent elites, they were fought for by the many. The elites in charge now will merrily drive us over the climate cliff in the name of growth and big business – it is going to take a huge movement to stop them. I am proud to have been a part of that movement, and I encourage everyone who reads this to be a part of it too.

- Angus Satow,
Zero Carbon Society, University of Cambridge Students' Union.


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