On Wednesday 27th April, Impact attended a debate held at University Park in which the matter of fossil fuel divestment was discussed.
The event was hosted by The Environment & Social Justice Network (ESJN) of the University of Nottingham Students’ Union, in conjunction with the University and was chaired by Dr. James Corah – the Head of Ethical and Responsible Investment for the CCLA.
The panel in favour of divestment constituted Tessa Tenant (non-executive director of Green Investment Bank, and co-founder of the Jupiter Ecology Fund), Tom Parker (Environment & Social Justice Officer of the Student’s Union), and Peter Mullard (an Environment Science student and a founding member of UoN’s FossilFree group).
The panel opposed to divestment was made of Timothy Devinney (Pro Dean of Research & Innovation at Leeds University Business School), Dr. Matthew Rendall (Lecturer in Politics and International Relation at UoN), and Luke Wenman (Chemical Engineering student, and Business Liaison for the Chemical and Environmental Engineering Society).
Kicking off the debate was a brief introduction, in which it was explained that 2.4% (£2 million) of the university’s budget was invested into companies that deal with fossil fuels. In February 2016, the Students’ Union voted unanimously to divest, leading the ESJN to hold the debate in order for the ‘university, students and academics to have a platform’ to discuss the issues.
The panel in favour of divestment pushed hard from the angle that time is of the essence. Tess Tenant started her argument be referencing the introduction, stating that if the investment is ‘only 2.4%, then it should be really easy’ to divest. Tess went on to say that she believes the ‘next five year are key. We have five years to really get the show on the road.’
“We have five years to really get the show on the road”
‘Blighty still has a deluded sense of what is important in the world’ according to Tess, who urged for the general public to follow international institutions on social media in order to see these issues ‘being played out internationally.’ She stated that ‘history is littered with examples of companies that resisted change and went bust.’
Tom Parker (ESJ Officer) referenced his campaign manifest in which divestment was a key pledge. In his capacity as the Officer, he says he has spent a lot of time campaigning for divestment and had encountered a lot of ‘resistance.’
Tom urged those that opposed divestment that divesting would not ‘harm student or the environment. What are we waiting for?’ Following this up, he stated that UoN prides itself ‘in talking the talk, and walking the walk. Our investment should reflect the sustainable values we cherish.’
Peter Mullard stated that the planet was in the ‘middle of it’s sixth mass extinction. Climate change is making it worse.’ He urged the University to think of the rising sea level if global warming continues, in which New York and Holland could be submerged. He stated that his role as a student ambassador meant he was ‘inspired by new students who want to change the environment.’
“Institutions ‘should embed [themselves] into these companies'”
He confessed that he was proud to be a student at UoN, but was ‘embarrassed by its investments.’ Peter closed his argument by saying that ‘divestment is a public statement that our ethics are in line with our actions.’
The opposition panel’s argument frequently referenced the notion that the university’s divestment would lead to a loss in influence.
Timothy Devinney asserted that ‘the issues are so complex that to address them in under ten minutes is naïve.’ He argued that removing investment from fossil fuel companies removed an institution’s ability to influence said companies. He believed that the institutions ‘should embed [themselves] into these companies.’ By owning shares in a company, he said, the University has a right to vote in shareholder decisions and could influence greener decisions.
“Divestment is a public statement that our ethics are in line with our actions”
He stated that the easy way out is to divest. ‘You need to be an effectivist, not an activist.’ He argued that the divestment campaign is ‘lazy’, as it allowed them to look like they are taking action when in reality it removes the problem from the institution. He closed his argument by asserting that ‘only when we see material damage will governments act.’
Politics lecturer Matthew Rendall confessed that he was ‘frankly undecided on the matter’. His argument consisted of one main reservation against divestment – he stated that by pulling investment, shares are opened to other companies and pollution will ‘continue with other people’s money.’
He constructed a metaphor in which the issues surrounding divestment were compared to Nazi concentration camps. In this, he toyed with the notion that if the University could make a small difference (in the same way that if one Nazi soldier in a concentration camp might be able to save one life by staying in the job even if they wanted to leave) by remaining invested, then should it?
“You need to be an effectivist, not an activist”
The final member of the opposition panel was Luke Wenman, who pushed a similar argument to Timothy. While he believes that the small percent of shares the University has in fossil fuel companies is not enough to make considerable impact, he stated that a coalition of sorts with other institutions would provide enough clout to influence the companies for the better.
He also stated that the University shouldn’t be ‘politicising as an academic institution’ as it sends the wrong message to applicants that may want careers in the fossil fuel sector.
Following a Question and Answer session from the floor, the audience was given the opportunity to vote to agree or disagree with divestment by show of hands. Two members voted against divestment, whilst the rest of the room voted in favour of divestment.
Image: Steven Green