7 days.

21 May

The last 7 days I have been sitting, dancing, and sleeping inside a university management building at Edinburgh University. After a three year long campaign which revealed the majority of students and staff were in support of fossil fuel divestment, the university refused to commit to divesting from any fossil fuel extraction companies. Instead they chose an ‘engagement’ approach, proposing a commitment to divest from coal and tar sands if certain vague conditions were met. I am not going to go through the flaws of this approach, but the report completely missed the point of the divestment movement. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement.

Our immediate and sincere reaction was to occupy; to show the university that we would not let it continue to profit from the destruction of our future. Climate change is the greatest threat to global health of the 21st century. It has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives around the world and will continue to threaten the integrity of the very Earth we live on.  Furthermore, fossil fuel extraction, the main driver of rising carbon emissions, is responsible for human rights abuses and ill-health of some of the world’s poorest communities, with fossil fuel combustion causing lethal levels of air pollution. As a medical student I am compelled by a similar duty of care towards our ecosystem, on which our health depends, and am called to respond to its current symptoms of distress. The time to act in the interests of a sustainable future was yesterday, and the university’s decision stands at the wrong side of history.

The last 7 days has proved that there is a real hunger for radical action in tackling the global injustice of climate change. We have held events, often planned merely hours before, which have attracted hundreds. From die- ins, to music festivals, sit-ins and pickets, the support from around the city and beyond has been overwhelming. On Friday we had a visit from Nobel Peace Laureate and lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Dr Graciela Chichilnisky. She sent messages of support and encouragement for direct action from students which held public institutions accountable for inaction on climate change. On that same day, we used our numbers to gain back control of the main doors (which had been blocked by security guards hired by the university to protect our ‘health and safety’). This allowed crowds of people from outside to join us for an evening of talks from Green MSP, Alison Johnstone, Scottish Greens Co-Convener, Maggie Chapman and former University of Edinburgh rector, Peter McColl. It was a day of positive spirits and reinforced hope, and despite now being denied free access, I continue to be inspired by the dedicated people surrounding me in this occupation.

Our demands are simple: for the university to make a public commitment to divest unconditionally from coal and tar sands, with the campaign continuing until full divestment from fossil fuel extraction companies is achieved. Divestment addresses one of the major barriers to climate action – the political, economic and social clout of the fossil fuel industry. It is a powerful tool to take a moral stand against injustice and has been used to overcome the Apartheid regime and to remove the social licence of the tobacco industry. The fossil fuel industry has used sophisticated strategies to maintain its structural power for decades, using tactics similar to the tobacco industry to undermine action on climate change. By funding think tanks to spread doubt on climate science, lobbying against international climate policy, and donating heavily to major political parties it has maintained a stranglehold on our democracy. Recent evidence by the IMF has revealed fossil fuels are subsidised by $10 million a minute, greater than the total health spending of all the world’s governments. If we continue to bow to the fossil fuel lobby, we will become locked into a society of gross inequality and climate injustice.

So, it is day 7 of the occupation of Charles Stewart House and the university have still not engaged in any meaningful dialogue to meet our demands. Last night the university decided to escalate with 7 security guards currently standing outside the main door keeping us locked in.  This means we are unable to let people in to take part in the workshops and activities we had planned. However, I have witnessed the power of direct action in sparking progressive change. We need to challenge decisions that are made behind closed doors by a small group of too often white male elite. Students like us should use our power in numbers, passion and ideas to make our public institutions accountable. Our occupation has brought this issue to the forefront of the media and the local and global community and the campaign continues to grow day by day. The university’s attempts to intimidate us will not make us go away, it will only make us stronger.

It has been an emotional week and I am beginning to question my sanity, but am amazed by what we have achieved. Even if the university fails to meet our demands, this occupation has empowered the local student community, given inspiration to those fighting for climate justice around the world and given climate change the raised profile it so urgently deserves.


Eleanor Dow – medical student and member of Edinburgh People and Planet.

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