Fossil Free UCL are currently distributing a petition urging the university to break its ties with the fossil fuel industry. You can read and sign it here.
Interviewer: Islam Abdelgadir (IA)
Interviewees: Julia Schaff (JS), Guinevere Carter (GC)
IA: Hello and welcome to the first edition of IPPR interviews, with the International Public Policy Review. I am Islam Abdelgadir, current deputy head editor of IPPR. I’m joined today by members of Fossil Free UCL – seems so official – a student society on campus, which is the UCL arm of the fossil free movement. The fossil free movement, for anyone who doesn’t know, is a growing international divestment campaign calling for organisations, institutions and individuals to demonstrate climate leadership and end the support for the fossil fuel industry.
So would you guys like to introduce yourselves and maybe give a few reasons (of) what drew you to fossil free UCL?
JS: I’m Julia, I’m a second year Arts and Sciences student and I’ve been part of the campaign since February. I became part of it just because I think being in a university is the kind of time where you can actually become part of the society and make a big difference because as a part of an institution you have a lot of leverage. And obviously I’ve always been very environmentally involved, and this was just a campaign that I had to be a part of. Once I became part of it, that’s when I actually realized the amount of hypocrisy and the irony. That’s how I became really involved.
GC: I’m Guin, I’m a fourth year politics student in SSEES, and I became involved with the campaign a couple years ago because I’ve always been left wing and did a lot of reading and writing around environmental issues, and then I thought actually, it’s time to start doing something about it. Because, at the end of the day, if we want to have any meaningful action on climate change, citizens have got to start doing activism and protesting and making the difference themselves.
IA: Can you guys talk a little bit more what the fossil free movement is generally and what role your student society plays within that movement?
GC: Yes. So the fossil free movement is a global movement, that was started by 350.org which involves Bill McKibben, a famous climate scientist and many others. It’s global so they’ve had institutions all over the world divest – from pension funds to universities to city councils – so the way that it relates to UCL means that, it is not just trying to get UCL to divest thinking that will change anything, it’s about a movement of all of us getting our institutions to divest, and that will cause massive stigmatisation of the fossil fuel industry.
JS: Well the divestment campaign also involves staff and academics, but essentially it is a student-led campaign. So that is the role of Fossil Free at UCL, (that) is to have a group of people who mobilise components of the university to try and convince the management basically.
IA: You’ve mentioned divestment a lot, just for people who don’t know what that is, could you explain that and why that is the strategy you’ve chosen to take?
GC: Divestment means selling your investments in fossil fuel companies, preferably reinvesting them in renewable energy instead. It was a tactic that was used against apartheid, in South Africa. It’s something that everyone can get involved in and I think climate change overwhelms quite a lot of people to the point of inaction, whereas divestment is something very concrete that people can get involved in and do and actually feel like they are making a difference in the fight against climate change. So the idea is to take money away from these institutions, but that’s not the main point. The main point is to morally bankrupt these institutions, to break the links between universities and the fossil fuel companies, between councils and fossil fuel industries that lead to a massive conflict of interest and lead to these fossil fuels being more integral than they need to be in our society.
IA: So I’ve been doing some research, some preparation, and I read in your 2015 union policy that UCL has investments in over ten fossil fuel companies, tell me if it’s changed. Gazprom OAO, Shell, BHP Billiton which was recently been exposed as part of the dam destruction in Brazil which has been the worst environmental disaster in Brazil. But, at the same time as all this. UCL does have an ethical investment review committee. It has an ethics committee with an investment policy. It has a green sustainability initiative. It does world-class research into climate change. Why challenge the authority of the university on this issue?
GC: Greenwash is, as you’ve said, you’ve just listed off a load of initiatives from UCL. But actually, we’ve tried to have contact with and use quite a lot of these initiatives, and when actually you get into it, the initiatives are to make UCL look good, to make them look environmental, but it’s not. So it’s greenwashing – on the surface it’s green, but when you look underneath it’s not.
IA: Okay, to return to UCL fossil free can you guys talk a little bit about your successes, strategies in the past and what you have planned for the future?
JS: So far, in the past three years, we’ve done a lot of lobbying within the university. So we’ve done everything from talk to the provost, talk to the council, given them presentations to the point where they’ve refused to look at our power points. We’ve brought in experts to try and speak to the management, we’ve got over 2600 signatures from students, staff and academics. We’ve passed, like I mentioned, the motion in the academic board and the union supports us as well. So every part of the university basically supports us. We’ve done a lot of actions which have gotten into the Independent, the Guardian and so we have a lot of media support in that kind of way as well.
IA: Do you have anything planned for the future?
GC: So, because we’ve exhausted the whole bureaucratic channels that UCL have kept pushing us down, and also we’ve been protesting for a few years as well, we’ve had academic debates as well etc. So now we’ve just written an open letter to UCL management asking them to meet with us before the end of term and put forward a serious proposal for divestment. Because, as scientists and the scientific community are continually proving, we don’t have any time to waste on fighting climate change. We need to go above and beyond the climate agreement, when it’s not even being implemented at the moment. So time is of the essence, and basically in the open letter, we’ve said if they don’t meet with us then we’re going to start escalating our protests because we’ve tried lobbying, we’ve tried being nice, we’ve tried all of these things and we’re sick of being ignored.
JS: We’ve obviously had very many meetings with management before, but the difference in this meeting, we’re demanding that it’s not a meeting where we are going to point out why we should divest. We are demanding a meeting where we’re talking about how we’re going to divest, so actually make concrete plans towards divestment.
IA: I was reading a paper about, the one that you sent me, the one by a UCL academic called Jane Holder. Showing how the inconsistency of UCL’s ethical policy and their investment in fossil fuel companies discouraging students from performing pro-environmental behaviour. Can you talk a little bit more about how institutional behaviour, if you have any thoughts on it, might affect the behaviour of students? Because I think there is a tendency to internalise climate action. To be like, if I buy this sustainable coffee, or if I recycle, then I’m doing my part, then I just need to let things go rather than escalate. Do you have any thoughts on that?
GC: Yeah, I think UCL completely normalizes contact with the fossil fuel industry. And it’s complete doublespeak. We all have contrasting elements in our opinions, and I think the students do internalize this. So yes, they try and recycle because they know that’s what they should do, but at the same time they look for a job in BP, because UCL has such strong links to these fossil fuel companies.
JS: A university is an educational institution. That is a point, it’s supposed to be creating the leaders of the future and that is exactly what UCL prizes itself so much in being a global university. But then, the university is a day-to-day life of a student basically. In that, if there is a pro-environmental message around them, then obviously they are going to internalize that, and that’s how we are going to create a sustainable future. We’re the next generation, so to speak, and UCL is not taking any kind of proactive steps in that.
IA: I would like to talk a little bit about what you think of more general environmental policy on a public policy level. We are the school of public policy, so first I’d like to talk about the UK government stance towards climate change. So back when Cameron, it seems like ten years ago, was prime minister, he won the 2015 general election on a manifesto pledge that the conservative party would be the greenest incumbent party in UK politics, only to go on and cut subsidies for solar and wind. Then under Theresa May we’ve seen the Department for Energy and Climate change abolished and being replaced with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, so that it seems like climate change has been taken off the agenda with all the noise in the background. What are your thoughts on the UK government’s stance towards climate policy and what kind of the role does the university play within that?
GC: I think that, again, it’s an example of doublespeak, of paying lip service to fighting climate change, but then actually doing actions like you’ve said that cut our ability to fight climate change, like cutting renewable subsidies. And so, I think that it’s important to hold our government to account because they won’t. The (conservative) party especially have a lot of links to the fossil fuel industry. The fossil fuel industry spend millions of pounds lobbying politicians every year and so I think (that) universities, as Julia said, should be the leaders in creating what we want from a new society in ethical and moral terms. Universities should be setting an example by divesting and saying to policy-makers that it can’t continue as things are and actually that radical action is needed, and universities should be playing more of a role in that. I think they already do, a lot of academics have good papers that have proven again and again how serious the threat of climate change is and how desperately action is needed now, but politicians will ignore that as long as the public let them.
IA: You mentioned doublespeak within the idea that we’re paying lip service, we’re greenwashing. But if you’re looking at the news now, it seems like what has more and more become the trend is climate (change) denialism. It took us this long to mention Trump, but Trump was elected on campaign promises to scrap the Paris climate change deal. (He) said he was going to bring back coal, he elected Myron Ebell (for) the EPA transition. The Environmental Protection Agency for anyone who doesn’t know. At the same time, we’ve seen Alternative Fur Deutschland in Germany and Marine Le Pen in France internalize climate change denialism into their manifestos, or into their ideologies. What do you think about the role of this climate change denialism? Especially since we’ve seemed like such a big milestone being reached at the Paris climate change deals.
JS: On speaking about this, I’m going to have to be very careful. I think that the reason that why it becomes such party politics is because I think, one of the roles that it plays is that climate change is not very relatable to people who don’t necessarily understand the science behind it. It’s all very factual, intangible and rational. I think a lot of these parties are running on a very emotional campaign, where it’s all about action rather than thinking. So I think it ties in over to that ‘what is climate change anyway? I don’t see any climate change?’ So it links to ‘let’s try and scrap the elitism of intellectuals’.
GC: It’s like a backlash. But partly, also, its racism, isn’t it? In America and in the western world we’re not going to be hit as badly by climate change as a lot poorer, global south, communities are. And, I think that all of these groups are very racist obviously. In order to not care about these people, or to dismiss their membership to a global citizenship – which they’re doing anyway through their racism and internalism – they deny that climate change exists. And it’s a maintaining of the status quo, and they probably get money from these fossil fuel companies as well.
IA: It’s also interesting to see that, developing countries have kind of, I mean, it’s a long time since anyone used the (term) ‘BRICS’, but if you look at Michel Temer in India, or (Narenda) Modi in India, or Xi Jinping in China, they’ve really been pushed towards accepting the Paris climate change deals and pushed towards climate action. Maybe not in the most radical ways that most people would like, or Fossil Free would like, but still it really contrasts with climate (change) denialism. Do you think there is a shift towards more developing countries, the periphery, third world, where they’re taking on the burden? Do you think that’s the future that we’re going to see? Do you have any thoughts on that? Just to end off?
GC: I haven’t read that much on it, to be honest. But I think China is finally switching to renewables and just start investing to renewables because obviously pollution is (expletive) over their country. Sorry for my language. I don’t know, to be honest.
IA: Do you think it comes from a strong domestic pressure in their countries, no?
GC: No. I think again that climate change is such a big phenomenon that everyone thinks it’s everyone else’s problem to solve it. A lot of the developing countries are like, well you burnt your oil, and your coal and your forests and that enabled you to develop, so why can’t have that same industrial revolutionary step in our development? Especially if you’re not going to give us money to develop renewable alternatives. And that has a point to it, that more developed countries that have contributed most of the C02 should be doing more of the work.
IA: I think that was what a lot of the antagonisms in Paris was about. How developed countries would look at developing countries saying ‘you’re polluting a lot, you’re polluting in excess of the amount that we were polluting when we were developing, and you need to reign it in’. And the developing countries would look to the developed world and be like ‘well you went through your developing stages, and you industrialised, and we also need to go through this path, before you call the kettle black’. Do you have any thoughts on global climate change action in terms of public policy or international public policy?
GC: Yes! The subsidies for fossil fuel companies from loads of governments are obscene, billions of pounds. And I think if those subsidies were put into renewables, renewables have a lot of potential to become even more efficient and effective, but if it doesn’t get the funding that’s not going to happen, and I think that challenging those big fossil fuel companies is really important because they spend millions on lobbying, as I’ve said, and have a lot of people in their pocket. And furthermore, these companies are worried and don’t want the status quo to change because you can’t tax the sun you can’t tax the wind, so it requires a shift of power. Which is why it’s been so hard to fight for and even though the logic and the scientific community are completely on our side, it’s still not changing. So that’s why we have to forcibly shift this power to renewables where these companies will lose a lot of their income, but we want to save the environment!
IA: Well thank you for sitting and talking with me!