Why I’m occupying a University Management Building over their failure to divest from fossil fuels

15 May

Kirsty Haigh writes about her experience of the campaign…

When I sat in Teviot debating hall three years ago as one of the students asking the students’ association to join the campaign to push the University to divest from fossil fuels and arms companies I never thought I’d be sitting in a management building three years later after continual refusals to divest. A couple of days ago the University of Edinburgh made the cowardly decision to not withdraw it’s £291 million endowment fund from fossil fuels and to instead keep funding climate change. Our University claims itself to be a world leader in sustainability but they have now clearly proved this is not the case.

We’re going to find our existence utterly altered if we continue to extract and burn fossil fuels. Divesting is a way of taking on the big fossil fuel companies and the power they hold over our public institutions. We rightly condemn companies that don’t pay their taxes or who exploit their workers and so we must do this to the companies who are threatening our very existence. The only reason our society is currently so dependent on fossil fuels is because that’s what was (and still is) invested in decades ago. The University needs to invest in alternatives so we’re ready to replace this dirty and unhealthy energy source. These alternatives need to be planning and creating new jobs so that when fossil fuel industries cease to exist there is something to replace them and that our students are trained to work in it.

Throughout the campaign I’ve been amazed by the constant stream of support from students, staff, alumni and the wider community. With lobbying happening both within and outside the boardroom this campaign has been diverse and been very clear on its demands. Even before this campaign, back in 2002, we saw early day motions lodged in both parliaments calling on the university to cease investing in companies which “flout human rights, exploit workers, pollute heavily or irresponsibly sell armaments” but due to the University’s inaction this could have equally been lodged yesterday.

There’s been hours and hours spent talking to students, gathering thousands of signatures, holding stunts on our campus and submitting papers to board meetings and yet the University have done nothing. When human rights charity Reprieve got involved last year we saw our first big win with the University withdrawing its investments from UltraElectronics (a company which makes parts for drones which were being sent to Pakistan). Following this we persuaded the University to run an all student and staff consultation on what they wished the University investments to look like. This not only provided an extra piece of support for our campaign but proved that the University’s own research produced the same result as ours- a vast majority in favour of divestment .Yet still the University refused to change their investment policy. Since then the University have conducted the whole process behind closed doors and, until the day of their announcement, had refused to publish any of their internal recommendations or working group reports.

The University and its fund managers have focused on a policy of engagement for years but in that time we’ve seen no positive outcomes and BP have reduced their research and funding in renewable energy. We’ve spent over three years lobbying and negotiating with the University but it has yielded no results. They have rejected and ignored the clear consensus on this issue and so the time for negotiation is over.

Divestment is also about creating more democratic institutions where those who make up the University can have a say in how their money is spent and invested. This lack of commitment has shown that we still have a long way to go in achieving a transparent, democratic and ethical University.

So, after shutting us out of the decision we’re now firmly shutting ourselves inside. We’re no longer being shunned and ignored by the University. We will meet with management but on our terms, in a space we have reclaimed from them to make them reconsider the purpose of the University – to make them put principles before profit. Our University is fundamentally failing to acknowledge the part they are playing in funding climate chaos and instead are speeding up environmental degradation. What we hoped would be the end of our campaign is now to be only the beginning and our campaigning is going to get louder and louder until the University stop burying their money in unethical companies and head in the sand.

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