Time to act: fossil fuel divestment

Last week Oxford students occupied St John’s College in protest at its £8.1m fossil fuel investments. The students held up placards reading “We can’t eat money or drink oil”, “Fossil Fuels are History” and  “Wake up Fossil Fools”. As they endured the overnight cold in their tents, the college’s response included attempts to keep out sleeping bags and blankets, deactivating the students’ key fobs, and a proposal from the Bursar that he could “arrange for the gas central heating in college to be switched off with immediate effect”. Calling themselves “Direct Action for Divestment“, the campaign group was supported by the Oxford Climate Justice CampaignXR Oxford and other climate activists.

The protests follow student campaigns all over the country supported by national student-led campaign charity People & Planet and others, which have resulted in 78 of the 154 public universities in the UK committing to divest from fossil fuels at least partially (including Oxford). Oxford colleges are also beginning to take action: Balliol College announced recently it would start to divest its funds from fossil fuel companies, following similar commitments by Wadham, St Hilda’s, Wolfson and Oriel. 

These battles reflect a growing spotlight on fossil fuels across the UK and beyond which has seen companies like fund manager Blackrock announce plans to start divesting from fossil fuels, The Guardian announce it will no longer accept advertising from oil and gas companies, Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences call on the university to divest from fossil fuels, and others such as Barclays coming under pressure from shareholders to divest.

But there is a long way to go to “end this madness”, and the campaigns continue. In support of the student protests, over 700 Oxford Alumni have published an open letter pledging to withhold donations “until the University of Oxford makes a commitment to full fossil fuel divestment”. As the UK prepares for the 2020 international climate talks in Glasgow and the world wakes up to our climate emergency, now is the time to act.

As individuals, we may sometimes feel powerless. But there are things we can do. Writer and activist Bill McKibben  suggests we “look for traction”, highlighting half of the UK universities that have already responded to divestment campaigns. Here are some steps we can take:

  • Join or support a campaign group working to get those in power to take action, such as Go Fossil Free, the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, or XR Oxford. There are many ways we can support these groups, including ‘behind the scenes’ work and financial support.
  • If you studied at Oxford, add your name to the open letter to St John’s College, pledging to withhold funding from the university and those colleges that do not divest from fossil fuels.
  • Write to your pension provider. Environmental law firm and campaigners ClientEarth have developed a template letter which you can access here
  • Join this Greenpeace initiative to call for BP to switch from fossil fuels to renewables by posting on their facebook post.

In the words of researcher and campaigner Dario Kenner, let’s remove the fossil fuel industry’s “social license to operate” – all of us can play our part.