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How universities can lead the charge on climate change

Originally published in the University of Sydney Environment Blog on 10 June, 2014. 

Stanford Divests

In early May this year, Stanford, one of the most prestigious universities in the United States, made a huge announcement for our climate. After pressure from campaign group Fossil Free Stanford, the university announced that is was divesting its $18.7 billion endowment from the coal industry. University President, John Hennessy, directly cited sustainability concerns when making the announcement:

“Stanford has a responsibility as a global citizen to promote sustainability for our planet, and we work intensively to do so through our research, our educational programs and our campus operations. The university’s review has concluded that coal is one of the most carbon-intensive methods of energy generation and that other sources can be readily substituted for it. Moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future.”

In many ways Hennessy is correct that Stanford’s decision is a ‘small step’. Whilst their endowment is huge, the amount of money the University would have invested in coal was probably minimal. Their decision is unlikely to shut down any plants or mines in the near future. Despite all of that though, Stanford’s announcement was huge – one of the most important for our climate all year. Well, that and the unveiling of Obama’s historic rules to reduce coal pollution by 30%.

If it’s wrong to wreck the climate then it’s wrong to profit from the wreckage

That is the motto of a new movement that is sweeping across the world – fossil fuel divestment.

Divestment as a campaign tactic entered into mainstream consciousness in the 1980s. At the time, anti-apartheid activists took aim at companies that were doing business in South Africa. They called on universities, churches, governments and more to divest from businesses operating in the conflicted nation. If apartheid was wrong, then profiting from apartheid was wrong as well. And the idea caught on quickly – creating moral and financial pressure that many credit with playing a role in the downfall of the regime.

Now, activists are taking that energy into a new, and in many ways, larger campaign. We’re taking that energy to target a unique, and potentially larger and stronger target. And Universities can play a leading role.

The theory is simple. The power that fossil fuel companies have to pollute our planet is dependent on organisations that are willing to prop them up financially, politically, and morally. Encouraging these organisations to remove their support is no easy task, particularly when the idea that the mining industry is essential for the survival of our nation dominates Australia’s political discourse. It was just last month that Prime Minister Tony Abbott said he could think of few things more damaging to our future than leaving coal in the ground.

Divestment is about challenging that very idea. It is about moral leaders standing up saying ‘enough is enough. The pollution of our planet has to stop’. As some of the great moral leaders, universities have a unique opportunity. Stanford’s announcement wasn’t huge because of the financial impacts, but because of the moral impacts. It was recognition from one of the world’s most respected institutions that the fossil fuel industry must stop their radical plans to continue burning fossil fuels. Universities have the opportunity to take away the social license that allows the fossil industry to survive, a social license that gives them the political and financial capital they need.

University Divestment in Australia

While 12 North American universities have publicly committed to divest, the push for university divestment is still in its early stages in Australia. Nevertheless, with 18 campaigns nationally, student referendums on divestment next semester, open letters from academics at over 10 campuses and meetings with vice-chancellors in the pipeline, there is no lack of momentum and drive.

Early push back from the prestigious Group of Eight Universities like the University of New South Wales and the University of Melbourne has made one thing abundantly clear: it is up to students, staff and alumni to make sure their universities are climate leaders, not climate laggards. Campus campaigns look fit to rise to the challenge, with pressure mounting and only set to increase as more and more students join the fight to end university investment in climate destruction.

Find out more and get involved at: http://gofossilfree.org/australia/

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About Simon Copland

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. In his spare time he plays rugby union and is a David Bowie fanatic. He is a regular columnist for the Sydney Star Observer, blogs at The Moonbat and tweets at @SimonCopland.

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