To Divest or Not to Divest – Or Neither?

The University of Edinburgh has decided to resist the call from campaigners and some of its academics to divest decisively from fossil fuels.

Does it matter?

Nobody – on either side of the debate – can sincerely think that the extent of the University of Edinburgh’s investment in the petroleum industry makes the slightest bit of difference to the latter’s financial position, or that its withdrawal would have any perceptible effect on business. A decision to divest would, in itself, be essentially symbolic.

But symbolism is important. Used for pernicious ends it can stir up hate, conflict, war and genocide; used constructively it can inspire peoples to build great civilizations.

Those advocating divestment see the question as about the kind of world we are leaving in our wake: will it be one where human activities have pushed our uniquely benign biosphere across planetary boundaries, or one where humans have regained control not only of their environmental impact but also of their own practices and their less admirable tendencies of arrogance and avarice?

Those resisting the argument point out that we are currently dependent on fossil fuels across the board and that there is no immediate prospect of replacing them. To get out of fossil fuels would threaten the collapse of civilization and curtail any prospects for the developing world. If you want to engage in symbolic action, they say, do so in a more careful and less naïve way. Your way will jeopardise the University’s own standing in relation to the petroleum industry and yet achieve nothing by doing so.

We notice that there is fear on both sides: fear of what the changing climate is going to do to people and planet; fear of how antagonising the petroleum industry will rebound on those engaged in teaching and research on petroleum, directly, and the rest of us within the University indirectly.

Perhaps we all need to face our fears, and think together how best to address them.

Both sides of the argument accept that if there were sufficient renewable energy to support the global economy then it would be better to stop burning carbon; both sides of the argument are in favour of supporting research in geology and in the properties of hydrocarbons. Both sides recognize the pervasive significance of the petroleum industry in the world as it has developed over the past century and the extent of our dependence on it. But while one side fears what that dependence is doing, the other fears what would happen if you tried to end it.

The University has listened to both sides, and has reached a definite decision – namely, to neither divest nor not divest.

Really? In all good faith, is the balance of reason and evidence so unclear?

Well, the question is not such a simple one, we have been told. And no doubt, behind the closed doors where decisions are made, matters can be complicated. They must be, if our relation to Big Oil is such that our leadership warns that going against them will result in ‘undue incursion into academic freedom’.

This leaves the rest of us wondering whether, after all, their dependence on our research and training means less to them than the symbolism of a gesture of disapproval? If it does, then we have both a problem and an opportunity – the sort of challenge an institution dedicated to learning might relish and harness all its talent to grapple with, if it so decided.

Just now, though, our University looks, like Buridan’s ass, to be rooted to the spot because pulled in two directions: its proclaimed path towards 21st Century Enlightenment lies in one and the petroleum industry would take us in another.

I personally hope the University’s reputation as a beacon of high ethical standards and enlightenment values can be preserved from the fate of the ass. Allowing a properly open discussion of what is at stake for our great institution in this epoch-defining struggle would be a start.

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7 Responses to To Divest or Not to Divest – Or Neither?

  1. edinburghpir says:

    I feel deeply uneasy about the way the letter circulated claimed that divesting would be harmful to ‘developing countries’. Seems mainly intended to provoke guilt. But don’t feel in a position to challenge them on it either.

    • Aaron Thierry says:

      Hi EdinburghPIR,

      For what its worth, I think that you were right to feel uneasy about the universities arguments. Here’s my response to what I felt was a pathetic justification by the University….

      That news release states that ‘The group noted in particular that many developing countries are still dependent on fossil fuels for the provision of heating, clean water and refrigeration. An abrupt shift away from fossil fuel use would impact on the well-being of some of the world’s poorest communities.’

      Showing that they clearly didn’t understand the severity of issue nor the urgency of action that is required, and that it is people in developing countries who’s lives and livelihoods are most at risk from disruption of the climate.

      The UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has warned that we are facing a “planetary emergency” and that “Climate change is the single greatest threat to sustainable development.” He’s also spoken in favour of shifting our investments away from fossil fuels “I have been urging companies like pension funds or insurance companies to reduce their investments in a fossil-fuel based economy [and shift] to renewable sources of energy”.

      Whilst Mary Robinson, former UN high commissioner for human rights (and an honorary graduate of this University), has similarly said that “I have become convinced that climate change is the biggest threat to human rights in the 21st Century”. She’s also spoken in favour of divestment saying that “By avoiding investment in high-carbon assets that become obsolete, and by prioritising sustainable alternatives, we build capacity and resilience, particularly for more vulnerable people – while lowering carbon emissions”.

      Even the President of the World Bank has said that “Climate change is one of the single biggest challenges facing development, and we need to assume the moral responsibility to take action on behalf of future generations, especially the poorest”. He’s also in favour of switching investments saying “Through policy reforms, we can divest and tax that which we don’t want, the carbon that threatens development gains over the last 20 years… Corporate leaders should not wait to act until market signals are right and national investment policies are in place”.

      The threats are now becoming so clear that developing nations are arguing that we need to increase our urgency and ambition and try to limit global warming to 1.5C, which would mean leaving even more fossil fuels in the ground!

      All of this was made clear to the fossil fuel review group, that the University should continue to spout these fossil fuel industry sound bites shows how flawed the decision making process was!

  2. timhayward says:

    I believe that feeling is very widely shared, especially in the areas of global academies, and I suspect (and certainly hope) that wiser counsels will caution dropping that particular claim…

  3. Jnana Hodson says:

    We have agreed to divest as a moral issue, choosing to put our money in firms closer to our values.
    While fossil fuels are more profitable in the short-run, their collapse is inevitable.

  4. Pingback: Should Edinburgh University divest from fossil fuels? | Ethics Forum

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