Universities have a duty to stop “trying to pay for current operations in a way that it is completely clear will wreck the planet”, a leading climate change campaigner has said.
Bill McKibben, the American environmentalist and scholar in residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College, Vermont, visited the UK last week to urge universities to follow the lead of the University of Glasgow, which announced last month that it will divest of fossil fuels.
Despite this breakthrough, Mr McKibben conceded there is “not yet the will” to move away from investing in fossil fuels within large sections of the higher education sector.
He said it was “disappointing” that so many universities had been slower to withdraw funds than the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune, who announced in September this year that they are to divest.
“If [the Rockefeller heirs] think it is imprudent and immoral to be investing in this stuff, what board of trustees elsewhere is going to explain why it is OK for them to do this,” he told Times Higher Education.
Universities will change only “once they see that students, faculty and alumni are demanding change”, he said.
“It’s the same with politicians – if left to their own devices will they do anything about climate change? There’s a 25-year record that suggests they will not.”
Mr McKibben said it was “inspiring” to see the growth in the number of universities across the world now moving towards divesting of fossil fuels, giving the Australian National University as an example of how it could be achieved in difficult circumstances.
Last month, the ANU announced that it had agreed to a proposal by vice-chancellor Ian Young to commence divestment of stocks in seven companies including Newcrest Mining, Sandfire Resources and Oil Search.
Joe Hockey, treasurer of Australia in the current government, told the Australian Financial Review that the university was “removed from the reality of what is helping to drive the Australian economy”, while assistant infrastructure minister Jamie Briggs said he would write to Professor Young to ask him to reconsider the decision to withdraw investments from coal seam gas company Santos.
“To publicly denigrate the reputation of one of South Australia’s finest companies is a disgrace,” Mr Briggs is reported to have said.
“Half the Australian cabinet started attacking the ANU, going after them as traitors to the coal industry of Australia,” said Mr McKibben, adding that it was a “very brave” decision by the university.
“This movement is building now, and fast. It’s inspiring to see it all over the world, and to see the pushback that comes.”
He also raised questions about a number of financial arrangements between universities and oil companies, arguing that even when interests are declared – such as the five-year £5.9 million collaboration between Shell and the University of Oxford announced in 2012 – such projects were not healthy.
“The real problem is that universities should be choosing what to research based on what needs to be researched, not based on who gives them money,” he said.
“If you do this, then you are simply a contractor.”