Wednesday 21-01-2015 - 14:41
The global Fossil Free campaign calls for institutions to pull their money out of fossil fuel companies. For this week's Hot Seat, we speak to Sophie Baumert about GUCA's ground breaking campaign success at the University of Glasgow.
Who are you? What do you study and what’s the GUCA?
I am Sophie Baumert, a third-year politics and philosophy student at the University of Glasgow. GUCA is short for the Glasgow University Climate Action Society, a group of students aiming at contributing to the struggle against climate change. Last year, we successfully ran the Fossil Free campaign, in which we asked our university to take its investments out of the fossil fuel industry.
What is the Fossil Free campaign?
The Fossil Free campaign demands that institutions cut their ties with the fossil fuel industry. This industry is a main driver of climate change, and has currently five times more coal, oil, and gas in its reserves than we can safely burn if we are to avoid catastrophic global warming. To keep these reserves underground, we need to break the power of the fossil fuel industry. Divestment is the first step of the Fossil Free campaign, aiming at removing investments ('divesting') from the fossil fuel industry. Other steps are, for instance, to stop accepting research money from fossil fuel companies and to not invite them to careers fairs.
Why should universities divest from fossil fuels?
The basic argument underlining the fossil free campaign is that if it's wrong to wreck the climate, then it's wrong to profit from that wreckage. The University of Glasgow, as most other universities, recognises the challenges that climate change poses and has several environmental policies in place and is trying to reduce its carbon emissions. This is inconsistent with profiting from the very industry that is driving the climate crisis. We need to drastically reduce our carbon emissions over the next few decades if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, so it is absolutely unethical to profit from the status quo that has led us into this situation.
But someone else will just buy up the stock, right?
Yes, but divestment also aims at breaking the social license of the fossil fuel industry. Universities have as educational institutions the responsibility to act as role models and demonstrate to the public that these investments are not appropriate. By raising awareness and shaping public opinion, we can step by step decrease the influential power of fossil fuel companies.
How did you get involved in the campaign? How did you start the ball rolling on divestment?
GUCA started its campaign just over a year ago, in Autumn 2013. One of our members had been involved with the Fossil Free campaign in Toronto and introduced the campaign to us. People & Planet started the campaign on a national scale. At the beginning we were just a small group, so we had to spread the word, build our team and do research on how much the university had invested and how we could approach decision makers. We created a petition that gained 1,300 signatures and held lots of public events, while developing our arguments to present to the university.
What resistance did you come up against?
The university itself was very cooperative. They took our demands seriously and discussed the issue with us in person. Opposition arose once the decision had been made, by a small group of the academic body which feels that divestment is devaluing their fields of research. They attacked and misrepresented the campaign publicly and we answered with an open letter restating our aims. However, this means that the campaign is not yet over, we still need to assure that the university sticks to its decision and does not give in to the small, but loud, opposition.
How did you finally crack it? What did it feel like when you succeeded?
It felt amazing, but surreal at the same time. Right up to the meeting of the University Court we were not sure what the outcome would be. In the end I think that our positive attitude towards the university had a huge impact on the decision. We tried to be constructive, and cooperative with decision makers, while at the same time building up pressure via social media and creative actions on campus.
What advice would you give to students or officers who wanted to divest on their campus? How can others get involved?
I think anyone who works or studies at an institution that is investing in fossil fuel companies can get involved. There have even been successful campaigns at the city level, for instance, Oxford City Council has recently agreed to divest.
If you start off a campaign, I would advise distributing work among team members to be more efficient, for example, we split up into research, action, and media teams. You should hold lots of events to be visible and get people talking about you. Be prepared for opposition from people who have vested interests in the fossil fuel industry. We found that our positive attitude was key to building relationships with decision makers – you can still have a more aggressive campaign if they say no! And lastly; remember that you're not alone and there is already a huge network of Fossil Free groups, so you can use the research that's available, get inspired for event ideas, and contact other groups for help
Take action at your union this Global Divestment Day on 13/14 February.