Climate Change and Energy Democratisation; UCL Why Not Play Gooseberry? Angelos Angelidis

Fossil Free UCL

Yet another article about climate change, a global environmental phenomenon which we have learnt to fear but have ironically become desensitised to. We are slowly becoming numb to news regarding melting glaciers, rising sea levels and environmental disasters. It is a bit like Donald Trump, whose excessive social media presence somehow made his absurd statements less absurd? I cannot really comprehend how this works but I would be delighted if someone could explain it to me.

This process of desensitisation does not change the fact that we are responsible citizens. But are we ready to sacrifice some of our comforts? Could we spare a bit more time for considering how such a large-scale problem can be resolved?

We occasionally wake up from our hibernation, for example when some indigenous people somewhere we have never even heard of before are fighting, tooth and nail, for environmental protection of our planet against wooden bullets sprung from the womb of oil imperialism. Our empathetic and responsible instincts suddenly switch on, only to do a virtual sprint and ‘save’ them through tweeting our support and outrage. How wonderful it feels to be changing the world one tweet at a time.

Alright, I might be a bit too satirical but I wish people did take ‘true’ action. I wish a bigger part of civil society got engaged and demanded justice. On that note, I would like to praise the work and time that thousands of people have put around the world to start and sustain the Fossil Free movement. For anyone who is not familiar with it, Fossil Free is a worldwide divestment movement that fights climate change by demanding that institutions such as governments, banks and universities end their investments in the fossil fuel industry which is reliable not only for environmental disasters but also gross human right violations.

“If it is wrong to wreck the planet then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage” reads the mission statement in the home page of Fossil Free Europe. And over 690 institutions have already listened to their people and taken action leading to 5 trillion dollars being committed to divestment[1]. By uniting the spheres of society, politics, economics and the environment, Fossil Free is a movement that takes radical action and paves the way towards a decarbonised society whilst also claiming back the power to people over energy-related issues. As part of this global divestment movement, Fossil Free UCL has been campaigning and lobbying for the past four years for our university to stop investing in fossil fuel companies. A campaign with such a solid case and support would presumably be successful in such a forward thinking university like ours. Yet we are lagging behind as the list of other universities that committed to divest keeps getting longer and longer.

On the 2nd of December, members of Fossil Free UCL had a meeting with the Provost (Prof. Michael Arthur), the Vice-Provost (Rex Knight) and the UCL Director of Finance (Phil Harding). During the discussion the campaigners presented a wide array of arguments backed up by evidence from both research papers and UCL reports on its aims to lead sustainable growth through innovation. The team was greeted by three nodding faces of agreement to the arguments presented only to then be told that decision making and the final call on this matter, lies within the UCL Council and not the Provost himself. The UCL Council is a board of trustees (chaired by Dame DeAnne Julius who held a position in the BP board from 2001-2011) which take a wide range of decisions about UCL without any consultation from the student body[2]. In the past, despite the overwhelming support of the Academic Board and a large number of signatures from the student body in favour of UCL divesting from fossil fuel companies, the UCL Council dismissed the matter without even discussing it. This raises the question of who does the university consist of and how are they represented in decision making? Is the current system democratic enough for an academic institution? The meeting ended on an ambivalent note with Provost Michael Arthur asking us to gather even more signatures and prepare even more evidence for future meetings. Does the attitude of the Provost show a self-righteous manoeuvre to stall the campaign even more, or a willingness to collaborate with the vast number of students and staff that want UCL to lead the way towards a decarbonised, environmentally and socially equitable world?

Let’s ignore the large number of scientists who agree that climate change is an existent threat and that we need to act as quickly as possible. Even if it was the case that humans are not causing this climatic change based on the precautionary principle is it not more appropriate and reduces future risk if we act now and decarbonise our societies? Following the above logic, how could one explain the inaction that characterises global leaders? In a word it all boils down to profit. We would rather keep fracking and extracting capital accumulation from our fertile Earth, than invest in renewable energy and a safer, environmentally friendly future.

To conclude, our university is managed by a board of trustees who prioritise economic profit over the protection of our planet and the future generations. Ask yourself whether this is the university you are proud to be part of? An undemocratic profit driven institution that values our voices less than the almighty dollar. The time is now to get involved and quoting Mahatma Gandhi (a UCL alumnus) “Be the change you wish to see in the world”.

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