Let us put views about fossil fuel divestment aside and first consider the events that brought us to where we are today. In October 2014, the University’s Central Management Group agreed to a request from EUSA to consider divestment from fossil fuels and armaments companies, and formed the Fossil Fuels Review Group to consider the issue. The group consisted of a range of experts in climate policy, climate science, geoscience, and law, as well as representatives from EUSA and the University. The group met six times between November 2014 and April 2015 and considered the case for divestment from a number of different perspectives.
The Fossil Fuels Review Group sent its final report to the University’s Central Management Group, which subsequently forwarded the report to the University’s governing body, the University Court, for a decision on the 11th of May. On the 12th May, the University announced that it had decided not to divest but would work with companies to reduce their emissions, amongst other things.
This prompted a number of student activists to occupy one of the university management buildings in protest. People and Planet Edinburgh explain: “We are occupying because the University of Edinburgh have not committed to divestment.” In other words, these students are occupying because they did not get exactly what they wanted. This would be legitimate and understandable if the moral case for divestment was clear-cut. However, this is not the case. Fossil fuel divestment is an issue on which reasonable minds can rightly disagree.
By divesting, the University would be giving up whatever power it did have to effect change within these companies. Indeed, in an article in The Guardian, Senior Vice Principle Charlie Jeffery wrote: “We will engage with companies to discuss and – we hope – bring about the changes we want.” He added that the University “will not withdraw investment without prior engagement,” which is precisely what divestment campaigners are insisting the university should do. Rather than stay put and have influence at the negotiating table, they would prefer to see the University replicate their own behaviour by flipping the playing board and storming out.
Perhaps leaving the table would be feasible if there were evidence that it could tip the balance of the game against fossil fuels and towards a sustainable, carbon-reduced future. But this simply is not the case. Fossil fuels are a necessity, evidenced by the fact that these same students will happily clamber on planes, cars and buses to protest against them. Their answer to this necessity is lacking; divesting will do nothing to the prevailing demand for the fossil fuels that generate our energy and heat our homes, nor will it harm the profits of the companies that are divested from.
Ironically, the divestment campaign readily omits the privilege that those living in a developed country are endowed with: the benefits from a hundred years of industrialisation, largely driven by fossil fuels. They aim to deprive the developing world of the very means by which we in the United Kingdom are able to live comfortably, and are ready to storm university buildings in order to do so. They argue that this is not true, that there are readily available alternatives to fossil fuels to keep the world ticking over. In that case they should be held to that argument. They should boycott fossil fuels, and set an example for the rest of us, showing that fossil fuels not only damage the planet but also are completely unnecessary.
At this moment, there are dozens of divestment campaigners attempting to disrupt a university that duly and diligently went through a process of taking their arguments and weighing up the evidence. When the University’s decision did not go their way, these students decided to stop trying to persuade people of their case, and picked up torches and pitchforks instead. The only true disservice the University could do to its students would be to show them that the way to win an argument is by throwing your toys out of the pram and stomping your feet when things do not go your own way.