As we watch yet another year of record-breaking temperatures and climate crises unfold, it is high time we made universities practice what they preach: for a good reputation, they must stop investing in the fossil fuel industry - financially, socially, and politically.
The global fossil fuel divestment movement has grown from this idea. Big players in the fossil fuel industry such as Shell now consider disappearing "social acceptance" their "biggest challenge". Almost 700 institutions representing almost $5.5 trillion have removed their investments from fossil fuels, including the the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune, the Church of England, numerous cities, and academic institutions worldwide. Notably, over a quarter of UK universities have divested.
Divestment by research institutions seems natural: if research aims to improve our futures, why invest in wrecking it?
In investing in these companies, we are complicit in their systematic functioning through exploitation and corruption. We see the industry routinely wreck the livelihoods of vulnerable people that stand in the way of profit - from toxic dumping in the Ecuadorian Amazon to overseeing a human rights tragedy in the Niger Delta to financing military police that brutally torture and murder civilians in West Papua. By abusing their financial power to gain political leverage, these companies limit their own accountability. There are few political processes from which an oil lobby is excluded - whether overpowering international negotiations on climate change, lobbying to subvert actions they claim to support, or paying their way into the heart of domestic politics, from Nigeria to the USA.
University College London (UCL) invests over £12.2 million in the fossil fuel industry, including oil giants BP, Shell, and Total.
As in wider politics, oil is far from absent in determining UCL's stake in the industry: the UCL Chair of Council was previously chief economist at Shell and a member of BP's board from 2001 to 2011.
Many students are shocked to hear about UCL's investments. Ecuadorian students funded by their government to study at UCL, such as Camila Montesinos and Angie Farfán, "are disgusted by our University's investments in an industry that has never shown any care for the environment or people who survive from it". Masters student Mariam Salah highlights how she previously thought the University was a "progressive" institution. Founded almost two-hundred years ago, UCL was the first UK university open to women, all religions, and all classes. It is now a leading research institution in fields that consistently implicate the fossil fuel industry, including climate science, human rights, and global health.
With divestment commitments from SOAS, Queen Mary's, LSE, and KCL, UCL's rebranding as 'London's Global University' is quickly shaping itself into 'London's Global Warming University'.
The divestment campaign at UCL has been escalating action daily following KCL's full divestment earlier this month. UCL students have smeared ketchup and marmite onto UCL monuments showing the oil-tainted 'blood on their hands', chalked community opinions onto the iconic 'Portico', made hundreds of calls and emails to UCL management as part of a communications blockade, and gathered the student community in a solidarity flashmob of music and dance in UCL's Main Quad.
On Thursday afternoon a dozen activist students made their way up a university ladder onto the UCL Provost's balcony to map out the chasm between the University's academic community on the one hand and the Provost's investment decisions on the other - written, scrawled, and drawn across his second story window. The students then occupied the space for 24 hours before writing their messages onto the Main Quad and emblematically delivering 'oil'-covered flowers to the Provost's door as a reminder of the life ruined by the industry.
On one side of the balcony window, we witnessed quotes from the Provost himself; on the other side, students referenced climate research associated with UCL.
A stark juxtaposition was revealed: "I run UCL like a monopoly board", read the left-hand panel. The right-hand window-panes bore a quote from the Lancet Countdown based at UCL: "the response to climate change could be 'the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century' (Lancet, 2017)". This accompanied references from other disciplines reflecting activists' subjects, including Anthropology, Economics, and Earth Science.
After four years of a loud campaign, campaigners' lips were taped over in a black cross, answering the university's determination to dismiss and defer their agenda as they waded through every possible diplomatic channel and demand by management; they were silenced and ignored. Just the day before, UCL deleted students' public feedback online that referred to the University's dirty investments.
The campaign has garnered more support than any other in UCL history, with an online petition of over 3300 signatures and wide support from the UCL Academic Board, and official support from the Student Union.
Fossil fuel divestment has "powerful financial reason" over and above the moral argument, as highlighted by Beth Dorsey, chief executive of the Wallace Global Fund. The decrease in investment return for universities is insignificant - typically less than one hundredth of a percent - as fossil fuel investments are a small proportion of total funds and do not yield the highest returns, including at UCL. Indeed, companies such as Shell and BP foresee that fossil fuel demand will decline in the medium-to-long-term as a growing number of investors recognise the implications of burning fossil fuels.
As a society, we must push all energy companies to become accountable green investors and contribute meaningfully to the global shift away from fossil fuels. Until they do so, we will continue to intensify pressure on our institutions to reject an industry that compromises all of our futures in the name of profit - and, ultimately, remove its social license to operate.
Fossil Fueled Rose - Nazanin Rassa
DIVEST Flashmob - Julia Hashimoto Schaff
Provost's Balcony Scene - Julia Hashimoto Schaff
Chalked Quad - Nazanin Rassa