Students protesting across the Cam on WednesdayDaniel Huf

Faced with the enormity of our ecological crisis, the crisis of our very being, what can students really do? When world leaders meet in Paris next month, the only thing they will all agree on is that global temperatures must not be more than 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Despite this, it seems beyond them to prevent this happening. Cambridge may not seem like the real world, but as humans on this planet, we are faced with the knowledge of impending disaster, of aching loss and of authorities failing to fulfil their primary function. When you add to that how busy our lives are here, how hard our degrees push us, the risk of burning out and the plethora of other activities that consume our time, it might seem reasonable to ask whether Cambridge is really the right place for environmental activism. Can we really make a difference?

Students across the world have been asking themselves that same question, and have come up with the same answer: divestment from fossil fuels – that is, getting their universities to withdraw their investments from coal, oil and natural gas. Since the divestment movement arrived in the UK in 2013 it has taken the country by storm: universities across the country have divested, from Edinburgh to Oxford, Glasgow to Warwick. In doing so they have not only engaged many thousands in our climate crisis; they have helped to build a social consensus against fossil fuel polluters. In each case, concerted student action – protesting, signing petitions and using alumni and academic networks – has made universities act, and made them divest.

Divestment is a powerful and necessary tool. If we are to stay below the crucial two-degrees limit, then 80 per cent of current fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, as study after study has shown. This is not some crazy lefty idea – it is scientific consensus agreed upon by mainstream society, from HSBC to the UN.

Fossil fuel companies won’t do this – it’s not in their DNA. Even now they are searching for more extreme forms of energy, whether dangerous deep sea drilling or desperate Arctic exploration. They protest that they are part of a transition to a low-carbon future, but we see through them. Shell was recently caught planning for a world four degrees hotter – a world in which the number of climate refugees would number millions, in which whole countries would disappear under water and severe droughts would starve humanity. For us to live in any kind of civilised world, we need a radical shift to renewables.

But governments won’t do this without being pushed. Globally, they subsidise fossil fuel companies to the stomach-curdling tune of $5.3 trillion. And renewables? They get $120 billion, over forty times less. Even then, the UK government has spent the last few months taking a chainsaw to the renewable sector while increasing subsidies for North Sea oil and gas. The global summit this winter in Paris is meant to sort this existential threat out, but even now, the politicians’ promises – vulnerable in the face of short-term interest – mean three degree warming. This is a disaster.

But it is also an opportunity. If governments won’t look after our future, we’ll have to do it for them. In doing so we can have a grassroots revolution and demonstrate true democracy: real engagement with the world we live in, responsibility for our own actions and community power. It is not governments driving the divestment movement; it is people, whether doctors getting the British Medical Association to divest, priests pressuring the Church of England (successfully) or students getting their university to invest in their future, not their destruction.

When institutions divest, they send a clear message: these companies are unacceptable; fossil fuel extraction must stop now. If Cambridge were to divest, this message would ring out loud and clear across the world. We will have played a crucial part in the fight against climate change.

But we will have also done something greater than that. We will have demonstrated solidarity with the frontline communities who suffer worst from climate change, from children choking in Beijing’s smog to the indigenous communities in Canada and India watching their entire way of life sacrificed at the altar of oil. Divestment is a global movement for a better world: those of us with a voice must fight for those without one.
That fight starts here. This week, the Cambridge Zero Carbon Society launched our divestment petition to Cambridge University, garnering 800 signatures in 24 hours. But the fight can’t stop there. We need to keep up the pressure, we need Cambridge to rise up and tell the university to put its money where its mouth is.

They know what is happening. Cambridge’s world-leading innovators are at the forefront of sustainability. Earlier this year, the University’s Sustainability Leadership group released a report calling for “a just transition to a low-carbon economy.” Then two weeks ago the University released a video entitled “Dear World...”, suggesting that Cambridge is the future and people should invest in it.

If the world is to invest in Cambridge, then Cambridge must invest in the world. We must make sure it ends this fossil fuel madness, and help create a better tomorrow.

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