Guillaume asked herself before the first meeting of the divestment working group: “How am I going to make them listen to me, this student?”Mathias Gjesdal-Hammer

When the divestment working group released its final report in May, 200 Cambridge academics signed an open letter calling it an attempt to thwart divestment.

On Wednesday, news broke that working group members Professor Simon Redfern and John Shakeshaft were directly involved in donations worth £22m from BHP Billiton and BP to fund research in Cambridge. The donation from BHP Billiton was later rescinded.

Alice Guillaume, who served on the working group for 11 months before she resigned in protest, has detailed the group’s inner workings for the first time. She said divestment was never really on the table—and it could be traced to power asymmetries in the room.

The working group was made up of ten people: two college masters, four academics, two members of the University’s primary decision-making body, one other student representative, then Guillaume, an undergraduate geography student and the most pro-divestment voice in the room.

Before her first meeting with the group, she had asked herself: “How am I going to make them listen to me, this student?”

When the group convened, Guillaume sensed some people’s opinions being considered more important than others. She remembered trying to bring up Royal Dutch Shell’s human rights violations as a consideration, and being dismissed.

In her time on the group, Guillaume perceived that financial knowledge was seen as superior, and knowledge of ethical considerations was seen as “fluffy”. She recounts another member trying to raise a point about ethics, then trying to qualify it, calling them “soft issues.”

It struck Guillaume then that others in the group too felt uncertain of themselves when trying to broach social issues – that there was a clear double standard in how seriously members treated financial considerations, while brushing off ethical ones. She suggested that the members of he working group were very well-versed in the financial implications of divestment, “but there are other forms of knowledge that are equally vital.”

Academics called into question aspects of the report emphasising financial knowledge in their open letter. At one point, it quoted an asset manager to CEOs who “emphasis[ed] the responsibility of businesses to ensure a good and responsibly managed return for investors”. Academics wrote: “we contest the relevance of this financial language to the Universities sector, which has no CEOs and offers no returns for investors.

“[We] have different ways of thinking about the world, of viewing the issues that matter, and you can see it reflected in how people approach an issue.” Problems began, Guillaume claimed, with who was chosen to serve on the working group.

The two ‘academics in relevant fields’ chosen were Professor Simon Redfern and Dr Jerome Neufeld. 

“It’s just such a massive thing that was conveniently not mentioned at any moment”

There are so many ways to understand academics working on relevant topics. To have two individuals from the earth sciences department seemed a bit suspect to me,” Guillaume said. She asked, what about people looking at the economics of climate change, or its social and political implications?

Then, at other points, “it struck me that [we weren’t] probing in the way I felt we should have been”, Guillaume said. She recalled that in evidence sessions with representatives from fossil fuels companies, she noticed some leading questions being asked.

At the mention of the working group’s recommendation of the creation of a centre for a carbon-neutral future , which would “combine research on energy production and use, climate, sustainability, and policy”, Guillaume scoffed. “A lot of the report is completely irrelevant to the issue of divestment.”

And in academics’ open letter, they wrote: “We believe that the creation of a talking shop of this kind … is no substitute for direct and decisive action in the present.”

Their point can be traced in large part to decisions made about who the group chose to hear evidence from. She remembers sitting in sessions with experts on carbon neutrality, feeling that they were a waste of time — that, though their work was important, it was irrelevant to the question of whether Cambridge should divest. “It was time that was taken away from actually thinking critically about the issue of divestment on to other issues, and this was right from the start.”

Students called for the University to divest in several mass rallies prior to Council's decision in JuneLouis Ashworth

“There were [other] times when I just had to say, wait you’re not understanding what divestment is”.

So she resigned.

After she resigned, Guillaume wrote in a Varsity article in March: “For almost a year I have been representing Cambridge Zero Carbon on the University’s divestment working group. Today, I am resigning from the group on the grounds that the report fails to address the urgency of climate change and the injustices it engenders.”

It wasn’t just about the report, but the entire process she witnessed leading up to the working group’s final recommendations. “The whole process was flawed. It was flawed from the beginning.”

Explained The 2018 divestment working group report

The contents of the divestment working group report divided members of the University Council in May, in its recommendations that:

1. The University adopt a commitment to “considered divestment”

2. The University should commit to being carbon neutral by 2040

3. 100% of the University’s energy should come from renewable sources by 2030

4. The University should not invest in thermal coal or tar sands directly or indirectly

5. “10% of indirect investment should be placed with funds that embrace Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) funds that are “consistent with a carbon neutral future”

6. The University should commit to the UN Principles of Responsible Investment

7. The Investment Office should become increasingly transparent about its investment processes through an annual report, with “information on environmental and social funds”, as well as an “informative website”

8. The University should join the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC), “or an alternative equivalent”, “to ensure it lends its voice and authority in engagement with industry”

9. A centre for a carbon-neutral future should be established to combine research on energy production and use, climate, sustainability, and policy

Click to show

Following revelations published Wednesday on Redfern and Shakeshaft’s involvement in proposed donations from BP and BHP Billiton, a petition has been signed by over 1,000 people calling for the report to be “revoked”, and says that the legitimacy of the Council’s divestment decision has been “undermined”. For Guillaume, there wasn’t much to begin with. “It’s more about a lesson in the way in which vested interests do impact the way that the university operates.”

All working group members were asked to declare any conflicts of interest to the public, though it wasn’t a formal requirement.

Redfern’s sole disclosed conflict of interest was: “Wife is Editor of “Green Christian” (a journal of an organisation that is linked to advocacy of divestment).”

Shakeshaft declared that he chairs a “private investment fund (Valiance Co Investment) that has an undisclosed small residual interest in Celadon Mining, a Chinese coal mining company. The interest is illiquid, unsaleable and de minimis to the fund.”

Neither Shakeshaft nor Redfern responded to Varsity’s requests for comment.


Mountain View

Divestment working group members were involved in proposed donations from fossil fuels giants

Commenting on their role overseeing the donations from BHP Billiton and BP, Guillaume said: “It’s just such a massive thing that was conveniently not mentioned at any moment.”

There were moments she was more hopeful that divestment was possible. Then the group would convene again, and an evidence session or discussion would seem to her to tip things back in favour of the status quo.

She got the sense that for some members of the group, the University should “carry on business as usual, leave the Investment Office to what they do best, [that] how dare you try and interfere.”

In September, four months after the working group’s final report was released, nearly half of Cambridge’s investment office resigned, leaving its future uncertain.

“It’s a really important moment for scrutiny.”