John Brookes: Coal and tar-sands investment partial victory

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today, the University of Edinburgh is set to announce its divestment decision. After a three year-long process the students who initiated it are about to see some results. We are anticipating partial divestment from coal and tar-sands, but that the investments in natural gas will remain. Disappointed as we are with only partial divestment, we would celebrate what would be an important victory for students.

I have watched divestment keenly since my final undergraduate year at university in Australia. Back then it was a fledgling campaign and hadn’t gained the support of prominent people and institutions it has today. With the weight of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Noam Chompsky behind the global campaign and previous successful divestment at Standford University, divestment is finally getting some of the attention it deserves.

Perhaps it’s just speculation but maybe my life in Australia prepared me well to get behind a campaign like divestment. The small farm I lived on was eventually sold by my parents, who were worried that either drought or fire would engulf them in the coming years. After one summer’s day in 2012, where temperature peaked at 42C, we awoke the next morning to find a layer of ash from a bushfire some 30 minutes away had settled on our cars, garage and deck.

But aside from anecdotal stories, the necessity for climate action is palpable and danger is increasing. It seems by choosing Edinburgh University I had come to one of the few countries in the world where water might not be a problem. After one lecture announcement I was approached by two students from Singapore who stated: “You’re right, people don’t know what it’s like without water!”

It has been a frustrating three years of inertia and indecision, right down to the unexpected and late decision of the University Court to become directly involved in the divestment decision. It has been frustrating to hear that investments in gas may remain. The rise in global temperatures can be brought on by oil, coal, tar-sands and gas. We are not asking the university to stop climate change; we are asking them to take a stand by their students who are genuinely worried about our futures. We have been worried for a long time, that’s why we invested in an education at such a good institution. To know that the university sells us an education but its shares in gas means it profits from our futures feels like the ultimate betrayal.

Partial divestment will be met warmly by students, but the warmth will be directed to the students and staff who made it happen, not to a university whose gas investments continue to give with one hand and take with the other. Coal and tar-sands, tick; next target, gas.

John Brookes is a member of the People & Planet campaign group at Edinburgh University