Top academics ask world’s universities to divest from fossil fuels

It is both unethical and untenable for universities around the world to continue to invest in fossil fuel companies whose plans to prospect for more oil, coal and gas endanger future global prosperity, according to an influential group of academics.

That statement from, Academics Stand Against Poverty (Asap) – a global group of about 2,000 researchers who study poverty and development – urges universities to follow the lead of institutions like Stanford, Syracuse and Glasgow that have all committed to divest from fossil fuel holdings.

They write: “At this moment in history, it is paradoxical for universities to remain invested in fossil fuel companies. What does it mean for universities to seek to educate youth and produce leading research in order to better the future, while simultaneously investing in and profiting from the destruction of said future? This position is neither tenable nor ethical.”

It went on, “As academics, we are in the privileged position to understand the risks posed by climate change and to make powerful statements in support of action.”

The statement also explicitly backs the Guardian’s “Keep it in the Ground” campaign which launched last month. It is urging the world’s two largest charitable funds, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust, to withdraw their investments from fossil fuels.

The campaign has attracted over 176,000 signatures as well as support from the former chief scientific advisors to the UK government and European commission, the UK Climate Change and energy secretary Ed Davey, actor Tilda Swinton, chef Yotam Ottolenghi and activist Bianca Jagger.

Last week, the Guardian Media Group announced it will divest from fossil fuel companies.

The Asap statement argues that these investments are “inimical to their efforts to advance global development and health”.

Signatories include David Hulme, the director of the Brooks World Poverty Centre at the University of Manchester, Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University and Raymond W Baker, founder of Global Financial Integrity.

Thomas Pogge, president of Asap and director of the Global Justice Program and professor of philosophy and international affairs at Yale University, said the fossil fuel divestment movement can add to political pressure in the run-up to the international climate change conference (COP) in Paris in December:

“It doesn’t matter how much money it is – others will buy the stocks – but when institutions like the Guardian or Stanford University make such public statements, they have enormous political significance. It shows that the [fossil fuel divestment] issue is not one where reasonable people can be on one political side or another – it shows it is beyond reasonable debate. This then undermines the political support that governments are willing to give the fossil fuel industry.”

As a staff member at Columbia University in the 1980s, Pogge supported students in the anti-apartheid movement who successfully persuaded the university to divest. He drew parallels with the fossil fuel divestment campaign:

“The apartheid movement showed the enormous impact that a few prominent institutions can make by divesting. The anti-apartheid campaign was not a fringe movement – it became a very large movement of mainstream institutions – so the government took notice and said their position was no longer sustainable.”

Asap members voted unanimously on 1 April to support the global divestment movement.

More than 220 institutions, including universities, pension funds and foundations, have now committed to move their money out of fossil fuels. The movement started by has been described by Oxford University as “the fastest growing divestment campaign in history”.

Pogge said that the energy needs of developing countries does not justify institutions maintaining fossil fuel investments: “Of course, developing countries need energy to grow and that can come from fossil fuels, but it doesn’t have to. The world needs to think about how to meet their development needs that are not based on fossil fuels. At the moment what is happening is almost the opposite.”

The Wellcome Trust, which funds medical research, has a minimum of £450m invested in Shell, BP, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton alone. In a response to the Guardian’s campaign, Director Jeremy Farrar said their strategy of engaging with fossil fuel companies “recognises the unavoidable fact that fossil fuels are essential to the economy, life and health, and will remain so for decades under any conceivable scenario.”

“This is especially true in low- and middle-income countries, where growth is the best guarantor of better health,” said Farrar.

The statement from Asap says: “climate change will wipe out crucial gains in development and poverty reduction in the global South, and will trigger food shortages, conflict, epidemic disease, and mass displacement. The current response by the international community is inadequate to prevent this from happening.”

It cites a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which says these trends will “exacerbate multidimensional poverty” and “create new poverty pockets” in low- and middle-income countries.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which currently has more than $1.4bn (£1bn) invested in oil, coal and gas companies, declined to comment on fossil fuel divestment. However a spokesman for Bill Gates’s private office said: “We respect the passion of advocates for action on climate change, and recognise that there are many views on how best to address it. Bill is privately investing considerable time and resources in the effort [to develop clean energy].”

Emma Howard

This article first appeared on the guardian

edie is part of the Guardian Environment Network

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