Fossil Free Forum29 August 2016
Global warming has been called the most critical moral issue of our time. In March this year the University of Melbourne released its Sustainability Charter 2016-2020. This included a commitment to “implement investment strategies consistent with the University’s commitment to sustainability and its financial and legal responsibilities”. On 8 August students were invited to have their say on how they believe the University is addressing its environmental impact, primarily through its continued engagement with corporations attached to the fossil fuel industry. The University has been continually called upon by groups of students to divest entirely from the fossil fuel industry, with the matter becoming increasingly contentious among the student population over recent years.
Hosted by Maxine McKew, former politician and journalist, the discussion covered ways in which the University can contribute to the global goal to limit global warming to below two degrees.
A member of the sustainability executive at the University encouraged students to have a “holistic understanding” of the University’s placement of investments. Currently the University’s indirect investments in companies connected to fossil fuel is a relatively low 4.08 per cent of total University portfolio funds, though amounting to a significant total of $78 million. This number has remained between three per cent and five per cent for the last five years.
“Time is running out to keep global warming levels below the safe 1.5 degree limit and anything less than full divestment within five years is an antiquated gamble that holds people and our environment hostage,” said student and member of Fossil Free MU, Lucy Turton, in a statement following the forum. Pacific islands, the communities who populate them and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef will all disappear if a 1.5 degree limit is not achieved. The University outlined in its statement for the forum that it “has been taking a broad approach by addressing all interactions with the fossil fuel industry, rather than treating investments as a standalone issue”.
Speaker Matt Clare, a member of Fossil Free MU and Juris Doctor student, promulgated the effects that global warming would have on the disadvantaged nations of the world. As the number of environmental refugees grows, Clare cited his commitment to Fossil Free MU being in response to a larger global issue.
“It’s a moral issue, and we need to take moral action”, Clare said, to applause from the primarily pro-divestment audience. In response to Clare’s speech, the crowd held up orange sheets of paper to show their support of divestment action by the University. “I think as students we’re here to learn new skills for the future, and to contribute to making the world a better place. It’s important to think about what kind of world we want to be shaping and by investing in fossil fuels, the University is fuelling the creation of a dangerous, inequitable and disastrous future,” Turton said.
Following the speakers, the public audience put questions forth. One question came from Harry Jennings, who asked the panel if it was hypocritical for the University to divest from tobacco when approximately 150,000 deaths are caused each year as a result of global change, which is significantly impacted by the fossil fuel industry. Previously the University had been among the first to divest entirely from tobacco and, similarly, South African goods and services to boycott apartheid.
Professor Cameron Hepburn, an alumnus of the University of Melbourne and current Professor of Environmental Economics at the University of Oxford joined the discussion via a pre-recorded video-link. Hepburn stated that though students have become understandably inclined to distance themselves from the damage caused by fossil fuel industries, he urged the student community to focus on the “research, teaching and outreach” at the University, calling divestment a “question of practicality”. Hepburn discouraged immediate divestment from all companies, stating that by continuing engagement with companies who have clear divestment plans, others will be encouraged to create similar divestment goals, which will stabilise emissions by 2050, a contention echoed by the following speaker Dr Leeora Black. Black encouraged the student community to focus on the area where it can have the biggest impact, namely in teaching and encouraging environmental sustainability. Black stated the University must not “rest on its laurels and should apply its talents to climate mitigation”. However, pro-divestment students continue to call for more urgent and immediate action to be taken. “Engagement with fossil fuel companies is only going to stall active leadership on climate change, undermining any other efforts,” said Turton.