Fossil Fuel Divestment Referendum: Vote Yes

By the Fossil Free USyd Collective.

Honi Soit is electorally obliged to print this opinion piece on the referendum regarding fossil fuel divestment.

Sandstone, photogenic lawns, students laughing under jacaranda trees, complicity in catastrophic climate change. Wait, what? Something is not quite right here.

Our University invests millions in the fossil fuels fuelling climate catastrophe. We pump money into fossil fuels companies, and they pump carbon emissions into our atmosphere.

It’s time to show leadership in the global fight against climate change. From September 23-25th USyd undergraduates will have the chance to vote on the following:

“Should your university stop investing, via its shareholdings, in companies whose primary business is the extraction, processing and transportation of coal, oil and gas (fossil fuels)?”

Vote YES to DIVEST in the upcoming referendum to let our University know that these stakeholders have been consulted, and we are calling for an end to investment in fossil fuels. Similar referendums are being held across Australia, with UMelb, UNSW, and UTS set to vote on divestment, and ANU having voted overwhelmingly in favour with an historic 82.1%. But we think USyd can beat them.

Our University has already acknowledged that our investments are due for a spring clean as management recently announced a review of the portfolio and a temporary ban on purchasing further stock in fossil fuels. Let’s make sure they hear the voice of students calling for action on climate change and divestment from fossil fuels.

Is it viable to divest? Certainly! We’ve done it before. In 1982, the University of Sydney became the first institution in Australia to divest from tobacco, taking a bold position of leadership against an industry harming our community. By refusing to profit from an industry claiming lives, the University took an ethical stance and paved the way for other institutions to do the same. Similar leadership was demonstrated in the early 2000s by divesting from cluster munitions. Fossil fuels pose a similarly grave threat to health, our agricultural and tourist industries, the Great Barrier Reef, food security, clean water, breathable air and a habitable planet.

Our University already has the policy infrastructure in place ready to divest. The Investment Policy (2013) states that USyd will abide by Environmental and Social Governance principles, and our Environmental Policy (2002) is to abide by best practice and create new, even better,  standards where none currently exist.

“The University will manage the activities over which it has control and which impact upon the environment in accordance with the principles of ecological sustainability.” (University of Sydney Environmental Policy, 2002, Policy Statement)

Given that the Aperio group found that removing investment from the top 200 fossil fuels companies affects risk by only 0.01%, or rather ‘statistical noise’, it is investing in climate change that is the radical, wreckless, irrational decision.

It’s important to recognise that USyd must not only take ethical and environmental principles into account when making investment decisions, but also ensure that our portfolio is profitable and stable especially in the face of government funding cuts and fee deregulation. There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that carbon assets are currently overvalued in the short term and will inevitably crash in the medium term.

To avoid the worst of climate change, world leaders have agreed that we must stop temperature rises of more than 2Cº. Current stock prices for fossil fuels do not account for “unburnable carbon” – emissions we cannot release lest we suffer extreme climate disaster. Fossil fuels companies currently bank on 2795GT of reserves in the coal, oil and gas fields, but 80% of this must remain in the ground if we are to limit warming to 2°C. Thus a “carbon bubble” exists, making fossil fuels a reckless and irrational investment on a long term purely financial basis as well as a morally bankrupt one.

Our political system has failed us. Far from pursuing action on climate change, our government  gives nearly $11 billion in subsidies to fossil fuel producers annually, is the first globally to repeal a price on carbon, and advocates instead its laughably titled ‘Direct Action’ policy which experts say will fail to deliver the emissions cuts necessary to save us from climate catastrophe. Our political system has failed workers, who are employed tenuously by multi-national mining corps that fire them by text (seriously), close down mines on short notice when they are no longer profitable without a thought for dependent communities, and provide no energy bridge into the future for their children.

We have marched on Canberra, protested at MPs offices, and will continue to do so to push for carbon regulation. But to win real legislative efforts, we need to take the social license away from the fossil fuel companies so they can no longer dictate our national energy policy. Divestment is a way to both economically and politically marginalize the fossil fuel industry and to build a movement large and powerful enough to overcome the political clout  they secure through millions of dollars in lobby campaign coffers.

We urge the University of Sydney to join institutions around the world such as Stanford University, the City of Seattle, the Uniting Church Australia and the World Council of Churches in refusing to be complicit with an industry that is consuming our planet. As the first and oldest university in the country, the University of Sydney once again has the opportunity to demonstrate leadership and be the first university in Australia to divest from fossil fuels and act against climate change.

Climate change is not only a threat to future generations, but a stressor for many of the world’s poorest, who are paying for the West’s inaction on climate change with their lives, homes, farms, roads and infrastructure and their money. Kiribati spent 15% of its GDP last year building sea walls and repairing damaged roads. These costs are never acknowledged by fossil fuel advocates, who use the political and geographical distance between “us” and “them” to deny responsibility. By continuing to invest, we are saying that we wish to profit at the expense of the vulnerable – our university community can do much better than this.

“Through critical analysis, thought leadership and active contribution to public debate, we help to shape Australia’s national and international agenda.”

The University of Sydney

Let’s see USyd demonstrate this leadership and make an active contribution to the fight against climate change. Let’s see USyd stand with residents of rural Australia, and residents of the Pacific Islands, with our agricultural industry and with Indigenous communities, with Australian workers and future generations.