It has been both inspiring and infuriating to be part of Zero Carbon’s campaign over the last yearLouis Ashworth

Climate change is intimidating and as individuals, we can often feel powerless. Heading into my second year, I’ve realised that the best way to strike a balance between individual acts and influencing the institution that I’m part of, has been to engage with the issue of divestment from fossil fuels. Cambridge’s endowment fund is the largest of any British University, at £6.3 billion. Environmental campaign group People and Planet estimate that the University’s investments in fossil fuel industries total £337 million, though the exact figure has been difficult to prove given the opaque nature of the University's investments.

I first heard about the divestment campaign from a friend - we’d both spent twelve months in the same tiny valley in rural Nepal. Nepal is developing rapidly and it is small wonder that countries like this prioritise cheap, fast development over sustainability. We in the ‘global north’ created the climate crisis, having already undergone industrialisation, yet overwhelmingly tend to criticise the ‘global south’ for a failure to develop sustainably. The campaign for Cambridge to divest from fossil fuels is part of redressing this balance - a leading academic institution in the global north with significant economic power choosing to remove investments from fossil fuel industries.

It felt distinctly un-Cambridge, distinctly hopeful

It has been both inspiring and infuriating to be part of Zero Carbon’s campaign over the last year. When direct actions like the Boat Race banner drop and the occupation of Greenwich House got people talking, it felt as though divestment was possible, even probable, given the sheer volume of local and national media coverage. However, when other students dismissed our spray-chalking of Senate House as performative, more aimed at bolstering individual self-image than challenging the climate crisis, this overlooked the vast energy we had put into engaging with the University’s formal channels – participating in a Working Group and submitting Freedom of Information requests.

There is nothing glamorous about gathering signatures for open letters, fly-posting for marches or researching divestment to produce reports; these are all necessary in a well-rounded campaign but get significantly less attention from the press. Some criticise Zero Carbon activists in Cambridge for engaging more with the social side than the issue of the campaign. It is true that genuine passion for an issue must come first, but that doesn’t eliminate the possibility of enjoying activism; in fact, it is unsurprising that strong bonds are formed between people whose energy is directed toward a common vision.

There were moments when we misjudged things, turning up hours too early for the Boat Race banner-drop and taking shifts standing on Hammersmith Bridge in the drizzle, trying to keep orange flares inconspicuous. These moments, unexpectedly, became times of real community; in cramped coffee shops, we found time to talk to the people we organised but rarely connected with. Another such moment, cooking and eating together during the Greenwich House occupation, felt like a snapshot of an alternative future that puts people and community above profit and ego. This ties into the vision articulated in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report of the transformation necessary in the global economy in order to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees and avert a climate catastrophe.

Cooking and eating together during the Greenwich House occupation felt like a snapshot of an alternative future

The occupation carved out new political space in the context of Cambridge during exam term, a typically atomising time. People worked together rather than sitting in separate library booths; it felt distinctly un-Cambridge, distinctly hopeful. There is something about the collective nature of activism that is different to giving your time to music or sport, which ultimately feel individually focussed; instead, banding together to work towards something bigger than us.

When the University Council rejected divestment at the end of last term, this was not just a rejection of the campaign’s sustained work but also of the hope felt by students and academics to be part of a sustainable future. Many asked at this stage “So what are Zero Carbon going to do?” and the answer is twofold – we have not given up on divestment, but that is not our only issue.

In time immediate fallout after the University's rejection of divestment, it was hard to know where the campaign would go - momentum and hope were lost. However, events over the summer, including several resignations from the University’s Investment Office and full divestment from Queens’ College, have provided a springboard for Zero Carbon’s efforts this new academic year. In particular, the campaign has a renewed focus on college divestment campaigns, as divestment delegitimises fossil fuel companies which, in turn, makes space for alternative economic structures that put people and the planet above profit.


Mountain View

What makes me an activist?

Another focus on the campaign will be to challenge ‘greenwashing’, a form of marketing which gives the perception that an organisation’s actions are environmentally friendly, which is widespread in Cambridge. Recently, we disrupted a Shell networking breakfast, aiming to challenge the portrayal of fossil fuel companies as part of a liveable future.

Whatever it is that prompts you to care about the climate, from watching Blue Planet to reading Naomi Klein, the IPCC report makes it clear that these next twelve years of all of our lives will be pivotal if we are to avert climate catastrophe. The campaign continues because we believe that Cambridge, as a place that holds national and international sway, has a responsibility to divest from fossil fuels. Our impact on climate change, as students here, may well be disproportionately larger than during the rest of our life. Radical, hopeful change happens here, initiated by people like us.