Universities expend considerable efforts to be seen as “public thought leaders” that drive the big debates.
It is core to their mythos, their rhetoric and their marketing. It fuels the yearly rituals of university rankings. Yet when it comes to climate change, many have embraced an entirely different approach.
On campuses around the world, students and staff are calling for divestment from coal, oil and gas companies as an act of moral leadership. Maybe this once seemed like a controversial decision. But divestment is growing so fast that soon it will seem more controversial when universities say no.
How far will universities be willing to fall behind?
Decades of university research tells us that burning coal, oil and gas threatens human health, economic development and global stability on a vast scale. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the International Energy Agency (lEA) and the Bank of England all agree that getting anywhere close to the 2ºC limit on global warming means leaving most current reserves in the ground.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says that the world pays $5.3 trillion (£3.49 trillion) a year in climate, health and financial subsidies to fossil fuels. Yet, as decarbonising becomes ever cheaper, still our political systems allow hundreds of billions of dollars to flow every year into finding more fuel and increasing production.
Clearly this is well past being a merely scientific issue. It’s a question of governance, morality and leadership. That is the insight driving divestment. Where national leadership fails, local communities and institutions can lead from the bottom up, shifting the political debate.
Critics say that divestment is symbolic. They are right. But they are wrong to say that the symbols are empty. Symbols can be immensely powerful. This ought to be obvious to institutions, especially universities, which are built on their reputations.
Moreover, divestment movements, such as that against apartheid, have a track record of leading to changes in government policy and business practice. They create political space and momentum for more ambition. The vitriol from the fossil fuel sector only proves that point. They are clearly spooked by how quickly the movement has grown.
Just four years ago, there were a few scattered campaigns on US and Australian campuses. Now, investors managing more than $2.6 trillion have pledged some form of divestment. Last week, Time magazine declared that “Fossil Fuel Divestment Has Kicked into Overdrive”. Other news outlets featured photos of Leonardo DiCaprio, who announced that he too would be divesting.
There are commitments from more than 400 groups, as diverse as the World Council of Churches, the British Medical Association, the California Academy of Science, the Australian Capital Territory government, the city of Newcastle (home to the world’s largest coal port) and Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund – ironically funded by oil wealth, now divested from coal.
Yet there remains significant opposition to divestment. This should seem strange, given how universities routinely boast about building a better future for students and for society.
At one level, the debate is about the nature of the modern university. Harvard University’s president Drew Faust famously rejected divestment because it would undermine academic integrity by being political. World-renowned professor of economics Jeffrey Sachs objected, saying the idea that university operation is somehow amoral is “morally corrosive of the institution”.
Sachs’ view of the “moral university” appears widely shared. Polling conducted last year by The Australia Institute showed four in five think that universities should invest with ethical factors in mind. Three in five agreed that this included avoiding investments in fossil fuels. Alumni also said that they would be more likely to donate if their alma mater divested.
Another reason for reluctance may be fear of backlash. The Australian National University provides an unusually ferocious example. When they dumped just A$16 million (£7.4 million) in resources companies (only two of them were in fossil fuels), the reaction was unprecedented. The then prime minister and five cabinet ministers weighed in, calling it “stupid”, and the Australian Financial Review wrote no fewer than 53 stories on the decision.
Yet this in turn triggered a wave of campus pride. As campus referenda and public polling have shown, people are hungry for leadership and expect it of their universities.
Of course, there are moral and financial questions to work through. But appeals to fiduciary duty show an inexcusable understanding of the financial and social effects of climate change.
It is indeed possible to go low carbon with negligible impact, as numerous products, models and analysts demonstrate. Conversely, thanks in no small part to the divestment movement, the financial sector is now realising that fiduciary duty looks different in a world of climate change, increased fuel price volatility and potentially stranded assets. Citigroup considers up to $100 trillion in fossil fuel assets to be at risk of being stranded.
Yet even on brute, merely financial terms, universities rate embarrassingly poorly. The Asset Owners Disclosure Project rates investors for how they deal with carbon risk management strategies. They found that universities are the worst of all categories of investors.
People see universities as leaders. Universities want to see themselves as leaders. When the weight of university research says that a safe planet means keeping most fuel in the ground, and when university students and staff are calling for action, the better question is perhaps not if our universities will step up, but when?
Ben Neville is a senior lecturer in the Department of Management and Marketing in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Melbourne. Tom Swann is a researcher at The Australia Institute, a Canberra-based think tank, where he works on socially responsible investment.