Cambridge Fossil Free protest

Cambridge Zero Carbon

The Guardian’s report that fossil fuel companies BP and BHP interfered with the University of Cambridge’s decision to reject divestment in June 2018 underlines two things we already knew: Cambridge is more committed to the interests of private companies more than the democratic will of staff and students; and the fossil fuel industry is petrified of the students successfully challenging their social license to profit from climate breakdown.

Industry pressure

BP donated £2m to Cambridge as the University considered whether to divest from fossil fuel companies. BHP offered £20m but later withdrew the offer. University management were aware of the offers. And two members of the University’s divestment working group were involved in considering them. At no point were the offers disclosed to the divestment working group which was tasked with providing recommendations on how to respond to calls for the University to divest. It recommended against divestment amid scandal as one of the student representatives resigned, calling its draft report a sham.

The offers came at the same time that BP CEO Bob Dudley encouraged Cambridge to reject divestment in April 2018. He told an industry conference: “We donate and do lots of research at Cambridge so I hope they come to their senses on this.” Dudley’s thinly veiled threat appears even more sinister since BP’s secretive donations were exposed. Cambridge’s divestment rejection has now been totally undermined by meddling fossil fuel companies.

As the battle over Cambridge’s fossil fuel investments has played out in the national press, the argument to revoke the industry’s social license has remained prominent. Bob Dudley has the money to buy Cambridge’s democracy. But students across the UK and around the world are armed with compelling arguments that the fossil fuel industry has no role to play in the just climate transition to decarbonise the global economy.

Taking on the fossil fuel industry

The campaign at Cambridge is just one of dozens across the UK. No wonder the fossil fuel industry is running scared. 69 UK universities have some kind of commitment to divest from fossil fuels. Many more have active campaigns. Soon, half of UK universities will have divested. It is increasingly clear that students won’t accept their Universities associating with the companies profiting from climate catastrophe. We may not win in every University boardroom, but Fossil Free campaigners are decisively winning the battle of ideas.

Its not just British students taking issue with extracting fossil fuels. They have paved the way for the 1000 institutions that have now divested globally. The demand to dismantle the fossil fuel industry to create space for a massive decarbonisation effort is increasingly mainstream. Rejecting fossil fuels is common sense among faith groups, trusts and foundations, education institutions, local government and entire countries.

Excluding the fossil fuel industry from political life goes straight to the top. In the UK, over 200 MPs have pledged to divest their pension fund through the Divest Parliament campaign. In the US, it has become a litmus test of leading progressive politicians to decline fossil fuel money in favour of small donations from the grassroots.

Throwing cash around

Companies like BP and BHP have no idea how to respond to their inevitable decline. Politicians and the public are rapidly turning against them. The industry’s only response is to aimlessly wave their chequebooks around. Every £2m BP uses to bribe Cambridge exacerbates the air of desperation around them. They have no plan to take real action on climate change beyond expensive greenwashing campaigns which never align with their actual business.

As students win the argument that we must totally transform our global economy in service of climate justice, people are fast understanding that the fossil fuel industry has severely restricted climate action, not helped it. Fossil fuel executives’ only hope is to bully and bribe in the vain hope that they may slow their inevitable exile from our political and economic lives.

Chris Saltmarsh

About Chris Saltmarsh

Chris Saltmarsh is a socialist and climate justice organiser based in Oxford. He is Co-Director: Climate Change Campaigns at student activist network People & Planet, where he manages the fossil fuel divestment and fossil free finance campaigns. He is also a member of direct-action network Reclaim the Power and of the Labour Party. He mostly writes about climate politics, social movements and the labour movement.