Measures have been taken by colleges to combat climate change, among them the replacement of boilers with sustainable alternatives and divestment commitmentsKatie Kasperson

The recent splashing of Senate House with oil paint by Extinction Rebellion prompted a lot of discussion. Their principal demand was for Cambridge to cut ties with Schlumberger, a multinational oil company, though the stunt took place in the wider context of climate activism which aims to cut ties with many more companies and the banks that invest in them.

But to what end? Abolishing partnerships with Cambridge wouldn’t cause any financial problems for these companies - in fact it would benefit them, given how much funding they give to us. Instead, the logic is that by funding climate research, sponsoring professorships and suchlike, climate-destroying companies ”greenwash” themselves of that reputation and gain a social licence to keep on operating. But I’m certainly not fooled into thinking these companies aren’t damaging the planet by this, and I’m willing to bet that very few others are either.

“The funding received from fossil fuel companies does contribute to pioneering climate research, much of which simply wouldn’t happen without it”

The truth is that research across science is drastically underfunded nationwide. There simply isn’t enough money to go around – even in Cambridge, despite the university having an endowment of over £3 billion (as is constantly cited by those who argue we don’t need more money), as the whole point of an endowment is to provide continued funding into the future through investment returns. We cannot simply spend it all in the present. The funding received from fossil fuel companies does contribute to pioneering climate research, much of which simply wouldn’t happen without it. Is that really worth sacrificing for the abstract idea of giving these companies a social licence?

The SU would certainly have us believe so. In November, they launched a new initiative known as CLOC – the Climate League of Oxford and Cambridge – in a poor parody of the Norrington and Tompkins tables, pitting colleges against one another based on a very limited understanding of their sustainability policies and degree of linkage to banks which finance fossil fuels. I’m not too surprised, given the hostility with which the initiative approached colleges, that many did not respond. The lack of wider outreach – to JCRs, for example – made it seem like they put minimal effort into gathering information. I know I was not consulted as a JCR President, though if I was I would have been more than happy to talk through our sustainability initiatives and plans at Christ’s. Instead, they just assumed the worst, giving Christ’s a totally unjustified score.

“Yet none of this is good enough for the organisations attacking colleges for their supposed lack of climate conscience”

Colleges are doing a lot more than they are getting credit for. I have been to meetings of our Environmental Policy Committee (which apparently doesn’t exist, according to CLOC) and seen robust plans to improve the climate impact of my college itself, including installing air source heat pumps in the majority of our external accommodation to replace boilers. Divestment commitments have been made, and various colleges are working together behind the scenes to lobby the banks they use to reduce their fossil fuel investments. Yet none of this is good enough for the organisations attacking colleges for their supposed lack of climate conscience.

Instead, some truly dreadful policies are being considered by the SU. At the most recent meeting of it’s Council, a motion from Cambridge Climate Justice passed that makes it SU policy to lobby the careers service to “exclude oil, coal and gas companies from recruitment practices,” as “platforming a particular recruiter is not a neutral act”. In other words, the SU now seeks to bar the Careers Service from platforming companies with links to the fossil fuel industry. Unsatisfied with the vagueness of this policy, I insisted on more details from the motion organisers, revealing plans in an additional appendix that also target transition metal mining companies despite transition metals being critical for low carbon technology - a fact the Fossil Free Careers website admits. To fight against recruitment into companies involved in mining materials required for renewable technology is counterproductive beyond words, and it is once again based on the concept of a “social licence” which “extractivist industries rely on … to operate,” according to the motion.


Mountain View

Senate House splashed with black ‘oil’ by XR activists

In reality, no-platforming these companies would damage their transition away from fossil fuels - which many are trying to do, because they know full well said fuels are running out and they need to diversify. BP, for example, is forging new partnerships in offshore wind and green hydrogen fuel. I’m not arguing that they are doing this for morally pure reasons, but the fact remains that they are doing it. By no-platforming their green initiatives aimed at the future engineers and scientists we have at Cambridge today, we will only hinder their development and cause these companies to linger in their oily legacies for far longer.