Harvard and UCL students ramp up divestment campaigns

From a lawsuit in Boston to a “die-in” in London, campaigners are raising pressure on universities to drop fossil fuel ties

UCL students stage a "die-in" (Pic: Fossil Free UCL)

UCL students stage a “die-in” (Pic: Fossil Free UCL)

By Megan Darby

In Boston, students are taking to the courts. In London, they are resorting to blockades.

On both sides of the Atlantic, activists are ramping up calls on their universities to divest from fossil fuels.

University College London president Michael Arthur and colleagues yesterday had to climb over protesting students to get to a meeting.

Members of Fossil Free UCL were playing dead in the doorway, to send a message about the impact of burning fossil fuels on the climate.

Banners read “UCL stop killing our future” and “London’s global warming university”.

Second year politics and economics student Guin Carter described how Arthur asked security to “come remove this person” before stepping on her.

“If UCL management choose not only to invest in climate-killing fossil fuels but refuse to negotiate with those demanding change, how else do they expect us to communicate with them?”

UCL president Michael Arthur scrambles over protesters to get to a meeting (Pic: Fossil Free UCL)

UCL president Michael Arthur scrambles over protesters to get to a meeting
(Pic: Fossil Free UCL)

Explaining the physical nature of the confrontation, the campaign group accused management of closing off negotiations after months of discussion.

Pekka Piirainen, a recent UCL graduate, said: “Management’s position to our campaign is a list of empty promises in a hope that we’ll be kept quiet long enough for us to graduate and move on.

“That the campaign has expanded hugely since September shows that their cynical tactics aren’t going to work.”

A spokesperson for UCL said its Ethical Investment Review Committee is considering the campaigners’ demands.

“UCL is committed to an investment policy that is guided by ethical considerations,” the spokesperson said.

UCL has a policy not to invest in tobacco companies or Cobham, a military technology company, but has some £14 million of shares in fossil fuel companies.

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Tom Youngman, a third year European social and political studies student, said: “A raft of reports from the IPCC to the IEA and World Bank have reinforced the view that we have a decade and a half to turn around the global economy, fully phasing out fossil fuels by mid-century.

“UCL’s world-leading academics research the causes, impacts and solutions to climate change. UCL management needs pay a little more attention and respect its staff and cut the university’s shameful ties to the fossil fuel industry.”

The demonstration came a week after seven Harvard students filed a lawsuit against their university, under the name Harvard Climate Justice Coalition.

“We believe that we have a responsibility to confront global warming,” their website explains.

“Climate change has arrived, wrecking the planet and posing serious dangers to the most vulnerable among us.

“Unless and until institutions like Harvard act to address the root causes of global warming, we will remain addicted to a system of energy production and economic injustice that guarantees catastrophe.”

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A year ago, Harvard president Drew Faust argued divestment could harm the US$32 billion endowment’s financial performance.

“The endowment is a resource,” she wrote, “not an instrument to impel social or political change.”

But as student publication the Harvard Crimson records, the university has previously divested from apartheid South Africa, tobacco and PetroChina, in response to campaigns.

The Harvard Climate Justice Coalition added: “Our university has a legal obligation – and, more importantly, a moral duty – to stop profiting from human suffering and environmental destruction.

“Our lawsuit simply asks Harvard to live up to its centuries-old promise to promote ‘the advancement of youth’.”

Read more on: Climate politics | Divestment