"The fossil fuel companies from which we took evidence I believe are sincere in their goals of changing their own strategies, both towards more efficient energy production and use, but also to sustainable sources of energy"Photo by Sebastian Grochowicz on Unsplash

What should the University, including all its members, be doing in the face of the existential crisis that is climate change? Is divestment the right solution? Should it be the only thing that is done? The Divestment Working Group that I chaired considered these questions during much of the academic year 2017-18 and reported to Council last spring. The issues of ‘conflicts of interest’, which have just surfaced after all this time – although they were publicly reported on the website throughout our work – are a diversion from what should be the real focus for everyone: ensuring the collective work across the university, and the lifestyles we each choose to live, contribute to reduce carbon emissions.

Let me first consider the ‘charges’ against Simon Redfern, charges which are not supported by the evidence and which are simply a distraction. Simon was not in receipt of money from BHP. As head of a department putting together a bid to government for capital funding, he was in discussion with BHP and this fact was brought up at one of our meetings. Because the money did not ‘exist’ – and nor was the bid successful – it could only be regarded as a ‘potential’ conflict of interest at some future date and hence it did not fit on the register of ‘actual’ interests, nor was it regarded as sufficiently concrete to need minuting. But that does not mean it was hidden from any of the other DWG members, who could have insisted on adopting a different position. For completion, and for readers who are unfamiliar with BHP, they are an Australian-based mining company, not a fossil fuel company in the normal sense of the word. I talked to a senior representative of BHP as part of the evidence-gathering sessions and they stressed that only about 5% of the coal they mined was burned; their main focus was on ‘metallurgical’ coal, stuff that is used in steel production, for instance, a fact that may not be obvious from recent discussions.

Secondly, let me turn to the issue of divestment itself. It is a simple message to get behind, and I understand why many feel the fossil fuel companies are the source of all our problems. Nevertheless I believe there are far more constructive and positive things to do, which require all of us to act and support them. The fossil fuel companies are supplying the oil and gas our current economy and lifestyles require. Hence how we live, the research we do and the choices we make should be targets for our action.

The fossil fuel companies from which we took evidence I believe are sincere in their goals of changing their own strategies, both towards more efficient energy production and use, but also to sustainable sources of energy. They also have to satisfy shareholders in what they do. Shareholders are therefore powerful. They can – and should – put pressure on the companies to move in the right direction much faster. If we divest – even from funds (since the University has essentially no direct holdings in fossil fuel companies) – we lose that ability. The DWG recommendation was that the University joined one of the institutional groupings which exert growing pressure on fund managers, who in turn put that pressure on the companies. The sooner we add our voice to those debates the better. Walking away – as the divestment movement demands ­– removes our power.

Our world-class scientists are part of the solution to finding innovative solutions to energy production, storage and use as well as to developing technologies that work for carbon capture and storage. The oil companies – as they have said repeatedly and publicly – need our input if they are to solve the manifest problems. Turning our research backs on them will not remove the issues we face.  That does not mean we have to do ‘what they tell us’. They don’t set the research agenda or tie scientists’ hands: the BP Institute was set up with BP’s capital but the research agenda belongs to the scientists within it.

Policy has a key role to play here. Our evidence sessions highlighted the importance of putting a price on carbon emissions, to reflect the damage they do to the climate and to provide incentives to expedite the transition away from fossil fuels. Those involved in policy discussions should be stressing the crucial need to establish an international consensus to achieve this aim. We, in the University, could introduce our own local scheme to effect behavioural change.

A single focus on action targeting divestment loses sight of the bigger picture.  It is incumbent on all of us to consider how we live. Is that flight really necessary? What would it cost to pay for the damage caused by my comfortable Cambridge life? What am I going to do to pay that debt? How can I use what I have learned in this University to help? We should be collectively fighting for a better world by using every means available to us. The time for such action is certainly now.

Professor Dame Athene Donald DBE FRS chaired the Divestment Working Group (DWG). Dame Athene is Professor of Experimental Physics, Master of Churchill College and a Fellow of the Royal Society.