Students at a divestment protest in Cambridge last weekJoe Cook

Dame Professor Donald’s article is reflective of the problems intrinsic to the Divestment Working Group (DWG) and the report it produced last May. The failures of the DWG in advising the University are reflected in the perspective of Donald, the chair of the group, on the recent Guardian revelations and the ongoing issue of divestment.

The revelations in the Guardian last month showed that Simon Redfern and John Shakeshaft (members of the DWG) were directly involved in considering a proposed £20m donation from BHP Billiton and a £2m donation from BP whilst advising the University on divestment. As a member of Cambridge Zero Carbon I stand by the campaign’s call to revoke the DWG’s report.

Donald states that the DWG knew about Redfern’s conversations with BHP about this proposed donation – which lies in conflict with a statement by Alice Guillaume, the student representative on the DWG, who stated that “the fact that these donations were even on the table was not disclosed to the working group at any stage. I was completely unaware that they were taking place.”

Further to this, Donald argues that these proposed donations were only a ‘potential’ conflict of interest, rather than an ‘actual’ one, meaning that they did not merit being noted. However, the only ‘actual’ conflict of interest Redfern publicly disclosed was that his wife is editor of Green Christian (a journal of an organisation linked to advocacy of divestment). It appears ironic that his wife’s editorship was deemed more important than his direct conversations with fossil fuel companies proposing a huge donation to his department.

Donald’s suggestion that the fact that these donations had a future, rather than present, status somehow rendered them irrelevant for minuting as a conflict of interest fails to hold the University to account for its relationship with fossil fuel industries.

One of the fossil fuel companies that Redfern and Shakeshaft were in conversation with was BHP Billiton, a corporation which Donald claims is “an Australian-based mining company, not a fossil fuel company in the normal sense of the word”. This understanding of the company neglects to mention its status as the world’s largest mining company and also a major oil company, who on Wednesday approved $696 million in funding to expand production in a joint oil project with BP in the Gulf of Mexico.

Donald also did not mention the £2 million donation from BP which Redfern and Shakeshaft were managing simultaneously with the proposed BHP donation. BP has been identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned fossil fuel companies and donated £22 million in 2000 to Cambridge for the creation of the BP Institute which The Guardian reported as currently employing nearly forty staff working on how to maximise oil and gas extraction.

Perhaps the most upsetting point of Donald’s argument is her claim that these fossil companies are sincere about efficient energy production and renewables. BP invests just 1.3 percent of its total capital expenditure in low-carbon projects and has shrunk its total investment in renewable and clean technologies since 2005. Similarly, Shell has pledged to invest just 3 percent of its annual spend on low-carbon projects by 2020. In 2017 Bob Dudley, the chief executive of BP, told the Financial Times that BP planned to double its UK offshore production to 200,000 barrels of oil per by day 2020.

Figures such as these do not suggest a clear commitment to a sustainable future. But so far, the association of companies like BP and BHP with renowned institutions like Cambridge has kept scrutiny at bay to a degree. To argue, as Donald does, that the multi million pound donations given to Cambridge by these companies does not give them leverage over the research interests of academic employees underestimates the power that these huge corporations wield.

Donald emphasises that Cambridge should retain their shareholder status in fossil fuels because this gives them power to pressure these companies to move towards more efficient and sustainable energy usage. Donald refers to the suggestion of the DWG that the University should join the Institutional Investors Group on Climate Change (IIGCC) or an alternative equivalent who seek to pressure fund managers who in turn pressure fossil fuel companies. This is not only a naive position, but a dangerous one.

To state that “walking away – as the divestment movement demands ­– removes our power” ignores the true meaning of divestment and Cambridge’s powerful status as an esteemed institution of education and research. Shareholder engagement has been deployed as a tactic for decades and has had little success. Full divestment from a powerful university undoubtedly sends a stronger and more powerful message to fossil fuel companies that Cambridge in no way condones their harmful behaviour.

BP chief executive Bob Dudley was criticised last year for publicly saying that BP “donate and do lots of research at Cambridge” and that he hopes Cambridge will “come to their senses” and move away from divestment. This statement highlights how divestment is of utmost concern to the managers of fossil fuel companies, and the limited power of shareholder engagement.

Additionally, Donald’s statement that the University has “essentially no direct holdings in FF companies” shows a concerning misinterpretation of divestment, which is committed to remove all assets, direct and indirect, holding the fossil fuel companies most responsible to account. With 100 responsible for 71% of global emissions, it is imperative that Cambridge utilises the power it already has as a global leader in education and research by publicly taking a stand against the fossil fuel industry. Complicating and watering down this condemnation by the convoluted process of shareholder pressure serves only to benefit fossil fuel companies further.

Donald repeatedly asserts that we must not single-mindedly focus on divestment, but must instead adopt a broader stance towards alleviating the climate crisis. She advocates for shareholders to pressure fossil fuel companies to shift to more efficient and sustainable means of energy, and for individuals in Cambridge to be more conscious of the sustainability of their current “lifestyles.”

This creates a false binary between individuals acting for themselves and pursuing structural change. Her focus on the role of individuals to change their personal lives in aid of being more ‘green’ places the onus on the individual and shifts the burden of responsibility from wealthy  corporations and states to us, the people. What Donald fails to recognise is the power of solidarity and unity the divestment movement offers. By refusing to let the University shift the burden onto its individual members, and by holding it to account, the divestment movement stands in total opposition to this atomising ideology.

Donald’s article is yet more evidence of why the Divestment Working Group’s report must be immediately retracted and replaced with a new transparent and democratic process to investigate Cambridge’s full divestment from fossil fuels. The fact that the leader of the body tasked to advise the University on divestment sees divestment as secondary to shareholder engagement and individual actions is simply the latest suggestion that the DWG did not engage fully enough with the debate around divestment as a whole.