INTVW: Glasgow Divests! A Cuppa With One Of The Movements Founders

It’s less than 24 hours since Glasgow students celebrated the announcement that their University would be the first in the UK to divest its sizable endowment from fossil fuels. I’m in central Oxford with 23 year old Miriam Wilson who was with that movement from the beginning and now works at People & Planet, the largest student-led campaign network in the UK, whose headquarters are above The Kitchen, a two-storeyed, shabby-chic, café-restaurant open from 8am ’til midnight every day.

Today, The Kitchen, itself a social enterprise, is sunny, supremely laid-back yet bustling. With a coffee and mug of tea we comb the busy rooms of people meeting and studying for a space to perch. Miriam, who hails from a small village in Yorkshire, recounts in her very laid-back and relaxed way how the movement was born, the work that went into winning the decision and explains what the campaign for universities to divest is all about.

What was the atmosphere in Glasgow like yesterday?

When our campaign co-ordinator rang me I could hear everybody cheering in the background, they sounded so happy and relieved as they worked so, so hard. Right now the team are meeting with NUS Scotland because they’re supporting the campaign and also students at Edinburgh Uni because they’re quite advanced in their divestment campaign but the university is digging its heels in.

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How did the divestment movement start?

It started about three years ago in the US at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. After going to the frontlines of fossil fuel extraction in America students went back to their university and started the divestment campaign which gained traction. (In the UK) People & Planet is student led so students decide which campaigns they want to run on environment and human rights issues. Our network decided that they wanted to run the fossil fuel campaign, so it launched this time last year. We ran the Fossil Free UK tour with author, activist and Rolling Stone contributor Bill McKibben and 350.org. That spread the message across the UK. From there we went from having one or two campaigns to about forty-six by the end of the year. The US is obviously further ahead, Stamford is the biggest to divest so far but what’s really exciting about Glasgow is, unlike the US where it was the smallest colleges that went first, University of Glasgow has one of the biggest endowments in the country, so it’s no small sum of money plus it’s a Russell Group Uni which means that other Russell Group uni’s like Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge will see this as a signal to take seriously.

How long had the Glasgow campaign been going and how many made that happen?

We started the campaign a year ago. I studied at Toronto University in Canada and got involved in their campaign then used that to bring the campaign to Glasgow. We had around 15 core members who were really active and committed and contributed all their skills, like an economics student who did all of our major research, someone who was really into photography who did our photography for us and so on.

What’s Step 1 in anything like this?

We started out by doing a film screening of ‘Do The Math’, it’s a really inspiring film and it got a lot of people excited. From there we had our first meeting and started doing research into what the uni was investing. Once we had the numbers crunched and figured out it was about £19million invested in fossil fuels, we launched with a petition and did a campaign on campus where we dressed up as dinosaurs and had signs that said, ‘make fossil fuels extinct’. We used that to get about 300 petition signatures on that day. We built support, then passed a motion of support with the Student Representative council, which meant that our campaign became their campaign and they were mandated to lobby on our behalf to the university. From there they took our campaign to the university court which is the highest decision making body in the uni. We used a 180 page research brief to build our case; it was a really thick document which presented our case really thoroughly and responded to any potential concerns.

B0wuRZbCcAAHJYz(photo: 22yr old student Chloe Maxmim from Harvard Divest movement on Real Time)

What are the major concerns or fears?

For the uni itself it’s, their fear is that it’s going to damage the returns on their investments. Are they going to lose money, how much risk are they exposing themselves to? Some uni’s think that they shouldn’t take a stance on political issues like this. They have what’s called a fiduciary responsibility which is basically that they’re required to make money through their investments so they don’t want to do anything that will harm that.

Fiduciary duty makes them morally or politically exempt but then what happens now that climate change is here and causing flash-flooding, refugees, breeding ground for extremism, then that makes it political and the goal-posts have changed?

Yeah I guess when you put it like that, I mean a lot of uni’s do have ethical investment policies. For example most uni’s don’t invest in tobacco because it’s contrary to their research interests and also it doesn’t make any sense to invest in tobacco when they’re doing research into the effects on health of tobacco. Some uni’s don’t invest in arms for ethical reasons. UoG does have an ethical investment policy which makes it easier to argue that uni’s should take a stance on an ethical issues like this.

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What happens if a university has research divisions that are sponsored by fossil fuel companies?

The University of Manchester is quite a good example of that, they have major ties to BP as they do a lot of research. BP also provides scholarships for students that are over £2k/year to students, so for Manchester to break its ties with the fossil fuel industry, that’s a harder fight than we had in Glasgow. It’s the same for the University of Aberdeen, a city whose wealth is obviously based on oil so it’s hard to campaign there when so many people see their future as intrinsically tied to the fossil fuel industry.

So if the money is divested from fossil fuels what is the movement suggesting they invest in or do you leave that up to them?

It started out as an attack on the fossil fuel industry and I think it’s so important that we keep up that attack because they are so powerful and they’re driving climate change. We need to be on an offensive against the fossil fuel industry, that’s what it’s all about. A lot of people have been talking about re-investment, so it’s increasingly becoming a divest-invest movement – getting universities to think about moving that money to something more sustainable.

But, to play devils advocate, investing in fossil fuels gives high returns…

Well see that’s what a lot of these universities say, that these fuels might not be profitable in ten or fifty years time but they’re profitable now. What we argue is, if we continue to invest in these companies that are causing climate change, their values have been inflated, uni’s will eventually lose their money on their shares in oil and gas.

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The Carbon Bubble….

Yes, and so people investing in the fossil fuel industry will lose out. Green Industry is on the rise while coal is in decline also, fossil fuels are getting more and more risky, we’re really scraping the barrel with extreme energy extraction like tar sands, fracking, exploring the Arctic for oil, it’s becoming more and more dangerous.

If all the universities divest how much money are we talking?

There’s a report called Knowledge & Power that’s available on our website that estimates it to be around £5.2billion invested in fossil fuels by UK universities. It’s a significant sum, though in the grand scheme of the financial markets it’s small. But it’s about the signal and message that it sends, to influence governments to level out the power over our democracy that they’ve had for so long. The tobacco lobby was huge until people started campaigning against them, which influenced governments to regulate, so that they can’t advertise and cigarette packaging comes with health warnings.

And governments started weighing up the total health service costs of tobacco too so if they start factoring the costs of climate change into fossil fuel consumption then…

Totally. I liked what Naomi Klein said last night (at her talk in Oxford with Vivienne Westwood), how there’s a really strong financial argument to say that the cost of the disasters of climate change are going to be less if we start investing in renewables now but the most powerful argument is the moral argument. It’s wrong to invest in tobacco, it’s wrong to invest in fossil fuels because of what they’re doing to people, you can’t put a price on a healthy atmosphere or clean water. This is where the real power of the movement lies I think.

Did you have support from the science faculty, I ask because Oxford academics wrote an open letter to Oxford University to divest…

We did, but it didn’t gain traction in time for the court decision, unfortunately. However Oxford has. There’s really strong opposition by faculties here who really don’t want divestment to happen, but then there’s overwhelming support from others. It’s proving to be a little more divisive here in Oxford, but that’s because Oxford uni is so connected to companies like Shell whereas Glasgow might have connections via the Earth Sciences department to fracking or those kinds of things, it’s not so core to their research departments as it is here in Oxford.

Oxford has the two extremes then, both the scientists who contribute to the IPCC report (climate report used by the UN) and scientists at the forefront of fossil fuel research.

Yeah, it’s hard to argue that it’s contrary to their research interests (and therefore funding) here in the same way as you can do with tobacco, but it should be.

Last question, I’m wondering, how do you personally react to climate change deniers?

I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who’s properly denied, no wait yes, I have met people who have denied it and I have got into arguments over it before, but ultimately it’s not worth arguing over – if they’ve decided they’ve decided. We don’t have to persuade everyone to be onboard we just need to persuade enough people to be onboard. That’s what I really liked about Naomi Klein’s talk last night, the importance of seeing climate change as a social justice issue that connects with every other social justice issue which, as she was saying, it makes the burden of responding to climate change much lighter. There are so many grievances across the board and all of these are connected to the economic system we live in along with climate change. If we can power all of that into one stronger movement, a critical mass, then we have a stronger chance of getting the change that we need.

Fossil fuel divestment_University Wisconsin-Madison_Flickr_Light BrigadingPhoto: University of Wisconsin