Glasgow divestment helped spawn a European climate movement

When Glasgow University ditched dirty energy investments, it gave the movement new momentum, says Sophie Beaumert

Pic: Light Brigading/Flickr

Pic: Light Brigading/Flickr

By Sophie Baumert

Today and tomorrow, campaigners from the Fossil Free movement are staging creative protests to pressure universities, city councils, and other institutions to divest from the fossil fuel industry.

“Carbon bubbles” are rolling all over the campuses, fake oil is being spilled, and people are symbolically breaking up with coal, oil and gas.

It seems an appropriate moment to reflect on what the movement has achieved over the last few months, especially in the UK and the rest of Europe.

The Fossil Free movement, which started a few years ago in North America, is calling on institutions to break their ties with fossil fuel companies, as these are among the main drivers of climate change.

A central demand is that institutions should divest from the fossil fuel industry, because profiting from an industry that is accelerating global warming is unethical. Since the start of the movement, several institutions and universities in the US and Canada have pledged to divest.

In depth: What has the divestment movement achieved so far?

Europe lagged behind at first. The fossil free movement here started just a year and a half ago. But by October 2014, the divestment campaign could celebrate its first success at a major university in the UK, when the University of Glasgow announced their decision to ditch dirty energy investments.

I was a member of the Glasgow University Climate Action Society, where we had been campaigning for divestment for about a year.

When the final decision reached us, it felt elating and surreal at the same time.

First of all, we were over the moon that all the hard work – the banner-making, researching, and standing in the Scottish rain to gather petition signatures – had paid off.

The decision-makers proved that they not only listened to our arguments, but also took them seriously – a very empowering experience for all students involved.

Further afield

Furthermore, the decision made by the University of Glasgow also has implications for the Fossil Free movement beyond the borders of this campus.

The University Court accepted the ethical argument of the divestment campaign, most strongly expressed by its slogan “If it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

In their own words, the University of Glasgow “recognises the devastating impact that climate change may have on our planet, and the need for the world to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.”

That a prestigious university acknowledges not only the existence of man made climate change, which is not scientifically disputed, but also the role of energy companies in causing it is a big step towards legitimising the divestment movement.

This case is strengthened further by other institutions, like the Rockefeller Foundation and the British Medical Association, which both divested from fossil fuels prior to the University of Glasgow.

While we celebrated the win and the widespread media coverage it received, we have not been idle since the decision was announced. It did not take long until we realized that there is still a long way to go, and that the decision made by one campus can only have so much impact.

So we tried to share our experience of the campaign with other groups, travelling the country, participating in Skype calls and answering endless emails, trying to give others advice on how to go about their own campaigns, and also learn from our mistakes.

Of course, every campaign and every university works differently. But I think it motivates others to see that the hard work can pay off. It was also great to hear from many people who were inspired by Glasgow’s story and asked us for advice on how to start a campaign of their own.

Since the win at Glasgow, other European universities in Sweden and the UK have announced their commitment to divest from fossil fuel companies, and more decisions are to be made soon.

The Global Divestment Day will hopefully help campaigns to build up pressure all around the globe and inspire new decisions in the coming months.

Sophie Baumert is a student divestment organiser from Glasgow Uni Climate Action society

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