Zero Carbon activists spray paint Old Schools wallsNoella Chye

As I was sitting down to write a piece about how divestment really isn’t as radical as it often appears, my argument was undermined by the actions of divestment campaigners this week in Cambridge. While trying to stress that those who may be put off by the noise of student protests should realise divestment is actually not so radical at all, Cambridge Zero Carbon Society rushed outside Senate House and started defacing University property. Three students yesterday also started a hunger strike, pledging not to eat until the University divests.

Such extreme forms of protest undermine the unradical reality of calling for divestment from the University. The case for divestment is plain, simple and frankly unexciting. While I personally support the ethical argument for divestment, the problem is that not everyone does. Those yet to be convinced are dissuaded from the policy due to financial reasons. They fear that divestment means investment that is less profitable and this falsehood needs to be confronted head-on if divestment is to gain the support of the University Council.

Making a financial case for divestment is so much stronger than solely an ethical one when trying to convince those who have not yet been won over. The argument that divestment is more financially beneficial approaches the argument from the perspective and in line with the values and motivations of those who most need convincing.

If Zero Carbon think the University is run by a corrupt group of old white men, why do they think the most productive way to convince them to divest is to storm offices and deface historic buildings?

Fossil fuel companies are overvalued and they are no longer sensible long-term investments. This is because oil companies tend to be valued based on the size of their reserves despite the fact that there is commitment in the international community, backed up by global agreements, that most of these reserves need to stay in the ground. Where is the long-term value in a resource that cannot, in practice, be utilised?

At some point there needs to be a financial revaluation of these companies. They will not be able to use the oil that investors once thought they would be able to, and so they are not able to make the returns on the investment that was once presumed as given. Consequently these companies will lose their value. This financial reality does not even have to rely on forcing investors to accept that climate change is happening, it just needs them to realise that enough people do believe it is happening and so will at some point start to sell stocks in these companies. Divestment then becomes financially beneficial – a win-win.

This is an important point, because this argument can perhaps persuade even a climate change denier to support divestment. By couching the argument in terms of the reality of the international consensus on climate change, even those who are sceptical of the phenomenon must recognise the logic behind divestment.

While I have met enough people who think that the threat of climate change is overblown, I am yet to meet anyone who refutes that the international community believes in the existence of man-made climate change. Once you accept this reality you accept that there will need to be some downward revaluation of fossil fuel companies, regardless of one’s own personal political beliefs.

This argument and reality (not orange smoke and chalk sprays) is why serious institutional players such as the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, the New York City Pension Fund and HSBC (to name just a few) are joining the divestment movement. These are people convinced by the risks, rewards and returns of divestment. The University Council cares about such financial risks and returns just as much. We need to make the financial argument to them, not keeping on aimlessly waving banners.

If Zero Carbon think the University is run by a corrupt group of old white men, why do they think the most productive way to convince them to divest is to storm offices and deface historic buildings? If you believe such a group hold all the cards, then surely you must recognise that loud protests are not the way forward.

Perhaps this argument doesn’t attract attention in quite the same way as protests, blockades and vandalism outside Old Schools and the Senate House do, but it is much more likely to achieve substantial change. Here lies my issue with Zero Carbon: it is not what they want to achieve, but the methods they are using to achieve those ends.

I can broadly see the argument in favour of protests and rallies. I recognise that for some causes they can help raise awareness and put a campaign on the agenda. But I cannot condone the latest of these episodes in the case for divestment. After the open meeting last term and with the Council voting on divestment next week, awareness is already very much raised, without needing acts of vandalism or hunger strikes.


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Students embark on hunger strike in bid to pressure Cambridge to divest

My problem with such tactics of student protests is the tendency for them to become an end in themselves. They become more about a performance or show than they do about the achievement of real end goals. When activism appears to be something people do because they like shouting, painting and disrupting (and the social media content that follows), the central goal often becomes lost. Activism starts to lose its meaning, and with that its respect, when it gets into the habit of protesting and shouting without asking the question: “is this really the best way to achieve what we want?”

Zero Carbon has built a platform from which it has a chance to really make a difference, but I fear that it has strayed from focussing on things that actually build support. We need to focus on discussion and dialogue, ways more likely to actually achieve change as opposed to trying to shout the loudest. I hope the Council votes for divestment on Monday. If it does not however, I would hope that Zero Carbon will realise that a less confrontational approach might well be more productive. But I won’t hold my breath.

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