It was less than a year ago that Divest Imperial was formed, with previous divestment campaigns at Imperial having withered away and been forgotten. Ten months on, our petition calling on College to divest from fossil fuels has over 1700 signatures, and Imperial College Union voted overwhelmingly to divest their own investment fund. The stage was set for a discussion with College itself – to present our arguments and learn why College remains reluctant to engage with them – which took place last month.
In meetings with previous divestment campaigns at Imperial many years ago, the College claimed to prefer to engage with companies as shareholders than to publicly denounce their actions. Shareholder engagement seeks to change companies by voting at shareholder meetings: the more shares you have, the more your vote counts. In the environmental movement, it predates divestment as a tactic by decades, but has sadly met with very limited success. We were surprised that College chose to pursue this strategy, and our instincts proved correct: in an embarrassing climb-down, Imperial has now rejected shareholder activism, saying that “our influence is stronger as one of the world’s great research universities rather than a mid-sized endowment fund”.
So what about divestment, then? A depressingly common misunderstanding of divestment is to expect that it will bankrupt fossil fuel companies overnight. It won’t, and it isn’t intended to: after all, shares sold by Imperial can just as easily be bought by a third party. The point is exactly what Imperial recognised – if we are serious about making a change, then our name and reputation carries far more weight than any amount of shares we might own. When a university with the clout that Imperial has takes a stance on something, people and industry alike pay attention; when 60 other universities do the same, it really begins to turn heads. Changing the public’s perceptions of fossil fuels is crucial if we are to change their consumption habits, and divestment is one of the only tactics that aims squarely at that target. Removing investments from fossil fuels is simply the means; the end itself is to afford universities a chance to call on fossil fuel companies to change their reckless business models, standing shoulder to shoulder with countless other public institutions in doing so.
“College said they believed giving money to fossil fuel companies was a net positive for the climate”
Moreover, given the frightening scale of climate change and the research going on here to mitigate it, is it even morally right for a university like ours to be generating income from fossil fuel extraction? After all, we already have a policy preventing direct investment in tobacco, and quite rightly too (Ed.: hardly watertight); perhaps College would care to apply the same logic to other ethically questionable investments? Alas, it seems not. College were reticent to discuss tobacco at all, and (comparing the cases of tobacco and fossil fuels) said that they “did not find them similar”, though refused to explain why.
With only a bit more probing, the truth eventually emerged: College “doesn’t think it’s immoral to receive funds” from these companies, and, when pressed, revealed that they believed giving money to fossil fuel companies was actually a net positive for the climate. There we had it, at last – not that divestment was idealistic, or financially unfeasible, or any of the other diversionary arguments thrown our way initially. At the heart of it, Imperial College believe that the best way to fight emissions from fossil fuels…is with more fossil fuels. We look forward to College’s imminent proposal to cure insomnia with caffeine tablets, and to hearing how what the library actually needed was a few furnaces to really cool it down. Fossil fuel companies will not change voluntarily. No amount of publicity stunts or toothless pledges to trim carbon emissions will change the fact that fossil fuel companies are there to extract and process fossil fuels. Any serious analysis of the figures pledged by fossil fuel companies towards renewable energy reveals them for what they are: cynical marketing ploys, and nothing more. That’s how Shell, supposedly the industry leader in sustainability (some achievement), can double their investments in clean energy, while in the same breath invest 5 times as much in risky deepwater drilling for new reserves.
Debates over tactics are one thing. Divestment seems to us to be the best and easiest way to effect change in this area, but we’re open to other suggestions; the last thing we want to do is to waste our own spare time on tactics that don’t work.
What we heard from Imperial was quite different. Imperial College, home of the Grantham Institute and funder of world-leading research in climate science, believes that we ought to be giving our money to fossil fuel companies because of climate change, not in spite of it. Though at pains to stress that it really does believe in climate change, the truth is that College is quite comfortable in the company of those that don’t, and ends up funding the damn thing anyway. If the choice is between an honest climate-denier on the one hand, and College’s contorted doublethink on the other…well, with a friend like this, who needs enemies?