The University College London (UCL) campaign is heating up in its bid to stop the university investing its £12.2 million in the fossil fuel industry. Fossil Free UCL escalated actions for 10 consecutive days in the wake of a triumph for direct action at Kings’ College London (KCL) where an occupation and two-week hunger strike led to the University’s commitment to full divestment. With this momentum, Cambridge Zero Carbon have threatened they will follow suit if their council continue to neglect the governing body’s support for divestment.
Following four years of persistent campaigning and dialogue with UCL management, Fossil Free UCL has exhausted all potential diplomatic channels. “Name it, we’ve done it”, says student activist Guin Carter. In November the group sent an open letter signed by 180 academics, staff and student representatives to UCL Provost Michael Arthur promising escalation of actions if the demands of divestment were once again not met.
Over the past weeks, students have smeared ketchup and marmite onto UCL monuments showing oil-tainted ‘blood on their hands’, chalked community opinions onto the iconic ‘Portico’ building and Main Quad, made hundreds of calls and emails to UCL management, gathered the student community in a solidarity flashmob of music and dance, and, finally, painted the front gates orange, the colour of divestment, with spray chalk.
On the fifth day of escalations, a dozen student activists climbed onto the UCL Provost’s office balcony to map out the chasm between the university’s academic community on the one hand and quotes from the Provost himself on the other – written, scrawled, and drawn across his second story window. The students then occupied the space for 26 hours before writing their messages onto the Main Quad and emblematically delivering ‘oil’-covered flowers to the Provost’s door as a reminder of the life ruined by the industry.
On one side of the balcony window, there were quotes from the Provost himself; on the other, students referenced climate research associated with UCL. A stark juxtaposition was revealed: “Running UCL’s investments is a bit like playing monopoly”, read the left-hand panel. While, the right-hand window-panes bore a quote from the Lancet Countdown, an international research collaboration, dedicated to tracking the world’s response to climate change, based at UCL: “the response to climate change could be ‘the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century’”. UCL prides itself in leading research that shows the catastrophic effect of the fossil fuel industry’s actions and emissions in fields including climate science, human rights, economics, and global health.
After four years of loud campaigning, campaigners’ taped their lips shut with black crosses to represent the university’s determination to dismiss and defer their agenda. Just the day before, UCL deleted students’ public feedback online which referred to the university’s dirty investments.
In response to their escalation tactics, the student activists received emails threatening disciplinary action from management for occupying the balcony and chalking messages of divestment on and around the Portico. They responded by chalking their reply onto the Portico. They referred university management to UCL’s own research on climate change, the motions passed by the student union and the academic board in support of divestment, and showed that, with a petition of over 3300 signatures, Fossil Free UCL is the most supported campaign in the university’s history.
Given the decades of university research showing that burning coal, oil and gas threatens human health, economic development and global stability on a huge scale, universities should naturally be at the forefront of a movement condemning the irresponsibility of the fossil fuel industry. Academics and researchers have long produced the statistics and predictions that warn us against fossil fuels. Students also have an important part to play in mobilising against climate change, given that their generation will be forced to deal with its consequences. It is therefore no surprise that academic institutions lead in the divestment movement worldwide, with over a quarter of UK universities having divested.
Looking at UCL’s self-proclaimed ethos illuminates the hypocrisy of fossil fuel investments. The university mission statement claims that its vision is “operating ethically and at the highest standards of efficiency, and investing sufficiently today to sustain the vision for future generations”. In investing in the fossil fuel industry, management have not only systematically ignored ethics-based arguments and failed to acknowledge any positive vision for future generations, but actively take part in wrecking it.
As in wider politics, oil has a hefty seat at the table in determining UCL’s stake in the industry – the top seat, at that: the UCL Chair of Council was previously Chief Economist at Shell and a member of BP’s board for over 10 years. Universities receive large sums from these companies in donation and funding, as well as hosting their events. Fossil fuel companies gain social credibility from these ties, as they do in other institutions considered ‘progressive’.
Fossil fuels’ part in higher education is symptomatic of its growing neoliberalisation. Universities such as UCL are run as companies, prioritising profit over learning, academia, or morality, and putting management at odds with the university constituents themselves. This couldn’t be more clear than yesterday at a UCL council meeting to discuss and vote on divestment. Fossil Free activists gathered outside in support of divestment, but were forced by management to stay inside a ‘pen’ of barriers, otherwise they would be trespassing on private property. Once again, despite all the evidence to the contrary, the council voted against divestment. Once again, the Provost refused to take the campaign seriously, waving the activists off.
If privately-owned energy companies are to survive, they must become accountable green investors and contribute meaningfully to the global switch away from fossil fuels. Until they do so, we will continue to intensify pressure on our institutions to reject an industry that irreversibly plunders our futures and the environment in the name of profit. Until we see change, we must continue to morally and financially bankrupt these companies by refusing to associate with or fund them, rejecting their reckless conduct and denying them the social license to operate.
Students, staff and academics refuse to be on the wrong side of history: enough is enough. Fossil Free UCL’s escalation will persist until the demands are met. The discussion has been had, the arguments have been made. The time to act is now.