Get serious about divestment

21 11 2014

dh-logo1We are a sensitive and conflict-avoiding lot, aren’t we? Most scientists I know absolutely dread reprisals of any form, whether they are from a colleague commenting on their work, a sensationalism-seeking journalist posing nasty questions, or a half-wit troll commenting on a blog feed. For all our swagger and intellectual superiority complexes, most of us would rather lock ourselves in a room and do our work without anyone bothering us.

Fortunately for the taxpayer, we should not and cannot be this way. As I’ve stated before, we have at the very least a moral obligation to divulge our results to as many people as possible because for the most part, they pay us. If you work in any applied form of science (most of us do) – such as conservation, for example – then your moral obligation to make your work public extends to the entirety of humanity and the planet. That’s a staggering responsibility, and one of the reasons I’ve embraced many other forms of communication beyond the bog-standard scientific publication outlets.

There are many great examples of impressive science advocates out there – a few that come to mind are people like inter alia Lesley Hughes, James Hansen, Michael Mann, Paul Ehrlich, Bill Laurance, Barry BrookOve Hoegh-Guldberg, Tony Barnosky, Gretchen Daily, Emma Johnston, Stuart Pimm, and Hugh Possingham. There are even others willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make an evidence-based protest against society’s more inane actions. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – evidence-based advocacy can work.

To the topic at hand – I’ve been a little disappointed – to say the least – with the near-total silence emanating from my colleagues about the fossil-fuel divestment wave sweeping the world. While gaining traction worldwide, it wasn’t until The Australian National University took the bold move to divest (at least partially) from many of its fossil-fuel financial interests that it became a reality in Australia. Let’s face it – of all the types of institutions in our world, universities should be at the forefront of good, morally grounded and socially responsible investment strategies. They are, after all, meant to be filled with the most erudite, informed and cutting-edge people in the world, most of whom should have the best information at their fingertips regarding the precarious state of our environment.

There were, of course, the entirely expected squawks from our current crop of plutocratic politicians who receive large cash incentives from the fossil-fuel industry to maintain the status quo. Indeed, our own Abbott-oir infamously stated recently that ‘coal is good for humanity‘ – how much more evidence do you need that the current leader of our nation is merely a stringed marionette manipulated by coal, oil and mining barons? Spending even a micro-second contemplating their perspective is therefore a waste of time.

Let’s ignore for a moment that divestment makes good long-term financial sense and this is the economically responsible thing to do, and instead focus on the global implications of the move. Climate change is perhaps one of the biggest threats to life on the planet as we know it. Coupled with our already depleted ecosphere, we need to embrace every possible tactic to mitigate its deleterious outcomes for society.

So why then have academics been largely silent on the divestment issue? While I’ve recently heard around the corridors of various institutions that people generally support university divestment, there has been a disappointing reluctance among academics to speak out. I’d bet a substantial portion of my meagre annual salary that if universities in Australia commissioned surveys on the issue, most university employees would support divestment.

Instead of being the bastion of minority student protests, let’s get out there and petition our university (and other institution) administrators that we want a cleaner investment policy for the institutions in which we work. At the very least, e-mail your Vice-Chancellor our Council representative that you support divestment. A little intra-institutional niggling might be all it takes to start the flood of divesting academic institutions.

CJA Bradshaw


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7 responses

21 11 2014
danimations

Well said Corey. What of IMER, the ASP and the Environment Institute’s receipt of financial contributions by way of research funding or endowmnets from fossil fuel companies?

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21 11 2014
CJAB

I can’t speak for IMER or ASP (I suspect for those it’s substantial). There are no fossil-fuel or mining contributions coming to my section of the EI, but there are potential in-kind & other contributions through the Spencer Gulf Initiative & Arid Recovery (future endeavours). For Arid Recovery anyway, the BHP Billiton investment seems like a very good idea.

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22 11 2014
danimations

I agree that BHP Billiton’s partnership re: Arid Recovery makes sense, as do any other research briefs by which harm to the environment can/will be minimised, reduced or meaningfully offset. In the case of the Spencer Gulf Ecosystem & Development Initiative, the financial contributors to SGEDI include BHP Billiton and Santos, both with interests in oil/petroleum and in BHP Billiton’s case, coal.

It’s not clear what BHP Billiton’s interest in the SGEDI initiative is, since they have informed the media that the Point Lowly desalination plant is “off the agenda” at least according to The Advertiser’s latest story. The current plans to expand the Olympic Dam mine look to be proceeding with heap leaching on the surface and continued underground mining.

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/business/bhp-billiton-boss-mackenzie-sees-way-to-unlock-olympic-dam-prize/story-fni6uma6-1227131299700

The company also informed me at their AGM this week that they have no plans to export copper concentrate via Port Bonython, should a new port be built there. I asked the company what their ongoing interest in the Spencer Gulf region is, publicly, at the AGM this week, and I didn’t get a meaningful answer. I suspect it’s a case of the company keeping their options open, maintaining some oversight of what work is undertaken by the initiative and potentially influencing the initiative’s direction to suit their future, albeit somewhat obfuscated intentions.

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21 11 2014
Dan Monceaux

Well said, Corey. I suspect staff and students at the University of Adelaide are concerned about the political/institutional power of some of IMER and the Environment Institute’s project partners, which include resource companies with fossil fuel interests.

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21 11 2014
CJAB

Project partners is another issue entirely, and I’m not necessarily against those. For example, partnerships that reduce the environmental impact of industry are clearly important. It’s more along the lines of stock investments, etc. that need divesting (at least to start with).

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21 11 2014
danimations

And that points to a cultural problem- If there is a culture of fear within the academia which prevents them from speaking out in support of fossil fuel divestment, where has that arisen from? Could it be that the institution’s culture has been influenced by financial relationships, board appointments and strategic decision-making by both the University and its corporate partners?

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21 11 2014
CJAB

I very much suspect that your assertions are correct, at least for some.

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