Edinburgh University had the opportunity to make a massive statement yesterday. Had they decided to fully divest from fossil fuels, the news would have circled the globe fast as the carrier pigeons could carry it. Followers of Edinburgh and the UK’s divestment campaign – newspapers outside of the NewsCorp solar system – would commend them. Perhaps other universities would follow suit. Glasgow has already divested from fossil fuels. The Church of England has partially divested from fossil fuels. Yet instead, after six meetings of the “working group,” and a consultation with Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA), Edinburgh hedged their bets and abstained. This is not the progressive action that universities are called on for.
University representatives stated the following: “It has been agreed that the University will use its research activities and its responsible investment to work with companies to reduce their emissions.” In other words, using the climate research Edinburgh already pursues, and the investment Edinburgh already has, Edinburgh will continue to assume the advisory role it has with major industries like coal mining, petroleum, and arms. The endowment portfolio is risk-averse, comprising a large section of FTSE 100 companies, and weighted in those that are guaranteed to make a safe return for the next decade or so. The FTSE 100 made a small jump when David Cameron was re-elected last week. Cameron is ensuring the maintenance of the status quo, and it is in this political climate that fossil fuel companies can breathe freely.
In their report, the fossil fuels review group gave themselves six potential decisions, taking into account the “signal” divesting would have, and the opinions of other universities which have divested. They even acknowledge that “human influence on the climate system is clear; continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long lasting changes in all components of the climate system; and strategies for adaptation and for substantial emissions reductions over the next few decades can reduce climate risks in the 21st Century and beyond.”
Five options involved an immediate assessment of and divestment from companies based on climate-related criteria. Option four was “Report, Benchmark, and Improve,” in which Edinburgh tries to bully RepRisk’s most controversial companies (based on a 2013 report) into getting their act together. Governments have already failed at this; their interests lay with their lobbyists. Monitoring companies’ emissions will not set a new paradigm for energy consumption. Confidence in energy innovation and alternative fuel sources is the kind of change Edinburgh should be pursuing, in line with the values of staff and students who campaigned for divestment.
Edinburgh University’s decision is the ethical antithesis of academia and intellectual discovery. David Hume was opposed in his day for his radical ideas and atheism, but now he has a monolith dedicated to his legacy on Edinburgh’s main campus. It has been proven multiple times that the risk-averse route will not prevent irreversible damage to Earth’s climate. The solution lies with the leaders in alternative energy research, like Elon Musk and Assaad Razzouk. Musk recently announced plans to mainline a remarkable innovation: Powerwall, a Better Battery that could prove the answer to reservations about solar energy. Powerwall’s price will inevitably decrease, and its industrial units could be of use in heavily populated countries facing high electricity demand, like India.
What is clear is that innovation and invention is happening today. However, Edinburgh has chosen to side with good old-fashioned 20th century capitalism instead of acting as an academic pinnacle of innovations and ideas. This will do nothing to help its global reputation, and is a pitiful response from an academic giant.
Image: Greg Eichorn