Fueling crisis or driving change? Disentangling our relations with destructive industries

Wind farm and greenhouse gas farm, together. Source: Kevin Dooley.

Concern for the effects of industrialisation and climate change is neither a 20th nor a 21st century phenomena, but the crisis is reaching new heights in our times. This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, while the tar sands industry leaves vast moon landscapes, tailing ponds and damaged groundwater in its wake, and the legacy from coal mining is even worse. The 1987 Brundtland Commissions’ report Our Common Future introduced the word sustainability into mainstream discourse, and acknowledged a link between development, distribution of wealth and environmental conservation, but 27
years after they expressed their concern about the ecological limits to economic growth, CO2 emissions are still rising worldwide. CO2 is at its highest atmospheric concentration in at least 60 million years, potentially higher than at any point in the history of human habitation on the planet. What prevents the collective action we need to solve the crisis?

Certainly not lack of knowledge. In October last year, the United Nation’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published the first part of their Fifth Assessment Report, synthesizing the latest knowledge in climate change research from the top climate researchers across the world. Their results confirmed our knowledge with greater clarity than ever before: climate change is happening now and is “extremely likely” to be caused by us. That is as close to a fact as you get in science. And, unless we do something about it, we are headed for severe and irreversible change. Whilst not a political body, the most recent Summary for Policymakers clearly states that climate policies can be informed by scientific findings, which their reports have synthesized and made accessible for a large and wide-ranging audience. The second and third parts of the report predict impacts and provide emission scenarios for a world at different temperatures. Given that we want to avoid a climatically unstable world, the IPCC is therefore a powerful corrective for a roadmap on how to get there.

The answer should be fairly evident: we need to change our reliance on fossil fuels and transition to cleaner energy systems. And we need to do so fast. The IPCC report offers a clear guide on how much CO2 we need to cut, and by which year, in order to adapt to the changes coming before the worst hits. A range of different technologies is needed and many of them already exist, but must be accompanied by policies and international agreements. The failure is often pictured as political: climate negotiations repeatedly fail, becoming blame-games where no country is willing to sacrifice their right to emit so long as everyone else fails to reciprocate. Large countries like the United States and China are unwilling to agree to common terms, and developing countries assert their right to raise standards of living at the cost of emissions associated with such development.

Whilst there is no doubt that a large part of the responsibility rests with politicians, the role of the fossil fuel industry itself and its relationship to governments, markets and institutions, has rarely been called into question – until now. In 2010, climate change activist and writer Bill McKibben wrote a piece in Rolling Stone magazine where he urged everyone to ‘do the math’, leading to the conclusion that these companies have a business plan to burn five times the amount of carbon we can safely emit if we want to limit the global mean temperature rise to the internationally agreed-upon target of 2 degrees C. The latest numbers from the IPCC claim that only 14-27% of proven carbon reserves in the world can be burnt if we are to have a likely chance of mitigating the risks of global warming. The problem is not only political, but one of business: the fossil fuel industry’s business plan depends on burning fossil fuels on a scale that will certainly endanger the stability of the climate system, but action to limit them is curbed by fear of disrupting the economy. Whilst this may, from a purely market-focused point of view, be a reason for concern, it is worth remembering that there are, indeed, as Meadows, Meadows and Randers wrote in 1972, Limits to Growth, and that all production is dependent on the ecological limitations of our common world.

McKibben’s piece of math was based on numbers from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, which introduced the term ‘Carbon Bubble’ in a report from 2012. Carbon Tracker’s most recent report claims energy companies have an estimated $1.1 trillion of capital expenditure vested in projects that require an oil price of $95 per barrel, or more, to make money. Combined with the surging costs of investing in and developing new projects, the risk of assets becoming ‘stranded’ is now a real threat. Most of the known fossil fuel reserves are ‘unburnable’ in a world where climate change policies come into place. At the launch event on May 8th, UN Executive Secretary on Climate Change, Christina Figueres, said the reasons for acting on climate change are ‘piling up’, and that these risks call for a drastic and quick switch away from high-carbon to low-carbon development.

Fear of the Carbon Bubble is making many investors change their investment policies to exclude the dirtiest fossil fuels from their portfolios. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the largest investment fund on the planet, has even called a group of experts together to assess the viability of moving all their investments out of the fossil fuel industries. The industry has responded in a rather different manner: both Shell and Exxon Mobile have written letters to their shareholders that can only be read as outright dismissals of the stranded assets risk. According to both companies, efficient policy won’t come in place in time to avoid a more than two degrees hotter world, with Shell’s letter going as far as calling the risk assessments ‘alarmist’. Shell instead claims that the rise in global energy demand means fossil fuels will continue to play a major role in the energy system into 2050 and beyond, with up to 40-50% of the total market. This goes directly against the IPCC’s recommendations in the Fifth Assessment Report: to maintain a likely chance of staying below two degrees, emissions must be cut by 40-70 % by 2050 compared to 2010, and be at near zero by 2100. In other words, the big oil companies are basing their business plan on the failure of policy to come into place.

The IPCC report also urges a shift from short-termism to longer-term thinking, even if this may go against our individual intuitive modes of action in everyday life. The point is a poignant one, and highly needed in a world steered by quarterly profit reports and an obsessive compulsion with economic growth. It implies the need to disentangle our collective trust in the market, and cut our ties to the fossil fuel industry. The divestment campaigns across the university sector have taken the second point as their core mission: If fossil fuel emissions are to blame for global warming with all its negative consequences, then it makes little sense for universities and social institutions to work for a better world whilst profiting on its destruction. Divestment campaigns are gaining traction and speed across the globe at an unprecedented pace, and many U.S. Universities have already committed to divestment, whilst student campaigns across campuses are demanding the same from their home institutions. Stanford University recently pledged to divest their endowments from coal, and the board of Trustees stated that “moving away from coal in the investment context is a small, but constructive, step while work continues, at Stanford and elsewhere, to develop broadly viable sustainable energy solutions for the future.”

Campaigns are also gaining speed in the UK, where endowments are also heavily invested in fossil fuels. According to recent research by People and Planet, 350.org and Platform London in a report called Knowledge and Power: Fossil Fuel Universities, UK universities have between £1.9 billion and £5.2 billion of their combined investment wealth of £62.2 billion in fossil fuels. If split between the student population, this amounts to £2,083 for every student in the UK. No wonder, then, that divestment campaigns are growing, and students increasingly demanding their money be put into cleaner investments and aligned with a low-carbon and sustainable future.

The University of Cambridge is amongst the wealthiest in Europe with its £5 billion endowment, yet its investment policies contain no ethical guidelines that would exclude fossil fuel companies or other morally problematic industries. In November 2013 the Ethical Affairs team submitted a resolution that was passed by the Cambridge University Students’ Union, voting to pressure the “University and its colleges to explicitly commit to pursuing low-carbon assets and withdraw their investments from companies whose main business is the extraction and/or production of fossil fuels.” With the National Union of Students, NUS, recently passing a resolution for divestment, there is reason to believe the campaign will pick up speed in near future. Divestment may not change the structure of the financial world, but opens a contentious issue for debate, reflection, and rethinking. If it does not serve to bankrupt the industry, it can, as Bill McKibben argues, “begin to politically and morally bankrupt them, and their kin, so they don’t exert such powerful control over our political bodies.” Divestment, in this view, disentangles taken-for-granted relations between profit, finance and energy systems, and offers an escape from the short-termism that locks the system in the wrong direction.

Endowments aside, there is another and more direct link between universities and the fossil fuel industry: sponsorship and donations. Companies such as Shell and BP sponsor research programmes with billions of pounds each year. They also sponsor lectureships, lecture halls, buildings and events, getting their name associated with posts such as ‘The BP Institute’, ‘The Shell Geoscience Laboratory’, or the ‘BP Chair of Energy and Sustainability’. The University of Cambridge is the recipient of the largest grant ever received from an oil and gas company by a UK institution, after it accepted a £23.1 million endowment to fund the BP Institute in 2000. Since then, sponsorships have increased exponentially. The 2012 contract between Shell and the University of Oxford sparked several protests and caused much disagreement including a letter from students, academics and alumni to the Guardian, calling Shell an ‘inappropriate’ choice to fund the Earth Sciences Laboratory. Their concern is with the influence Shell exerts on the research agenda whilst at the very same university, top climate scientists say most of the known oil, coal and gas must remain in the ground. At the University of Cambridge, BP is currently funding the ‘BP Foreseer Project’, which aims to predict future resource pathways, and similar relations exist across the UK University Sector. A report from 2003 shows how research through the universities is significantly cheaper than in-house research, gives the companies access to pools of future employees, and happens in collaboration with the government and with taxpayer’s money. With the fossil fuel industry not only invested in through endowments, but directly funding research, they ask to what extent such relations prolong dependency on fossil fuels and buys the companies a credibility they do not deserve.

The dissonance, then, stretches from governments through financial markets to the university sector. The actuality and acuteness of climate change is no longer controversial, nor the need for fossil fuels to largely remain in the ground. Yet how to make the transition to clean and sustainable energy is far from clear. Whilst waiting for political will and policies to set things right, business as usual and continued fossil fuel extraction is not an option for a sustainable future. Both divestment from the fossil fuel industry and a disentanglement of universities from business interests are powerful tools for change, and whilst they will not solve the crisis in themselves, they will help channel finances, bright minds and research programmes into the renewable sector, and put an end to the university being reduced to a training ground for the fossil fuel industry. Paying closer attention to the relationship between technologies and politics is an important step in this process. 

Ragnhild Feng Dale is a PhD candidate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. Her research is concerned with resource extraction, politics and social change in Greenland. She is also a freelance writer and performer, and tweets @ragnhildfd.