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Divestment at the University of Bristol?

Divestment march. Image courtesy of Fossil Free University of Bristol.
Earlier this year I was approached by students who were involved in the campaign to petition the University of Bristol to divest from fossil fuel investments to see if I would be prepared to support their campaign and to encourage other members of the University’s staff to do so also.  I give lectures to students from the Faculty of Engineering on the subject of sustainable development, and through those lectures the students were aware that I have a good understanding of some of the challenges that face us.

I am a mechanical engineer by training, a specialist in engineering design, and I have worked in and with the transportation industries throughout my working life.  These industries– automobile, railway, aerospace, marine – are among the prime users of the fossil fuels with which the students are concerned, and although I am passionate about all things mechanical I have become convinced in recent years that we must be more radical in addressing issues of climate change than we have so far been prepared to be.  I was thus pleased to be able to give the students my support.  I felt at the very least the subject should figure strongly in debate and discussion within the University. I wrote emails to a number of members of the University staff inviting them to sign up to the campaign, using the letter reproduced below.
Dear Vice Chancellor,
We are writing to you to express our support for the open letter [1] that urges the University of Bristol to divest itself of investments in companies in the fossil fuel industry.  We acknowledge that exploitation of fossil fuels has enabled the remarkable developments of the industrial world, but we are now convinced that its continuation poses enormous threats to our planet and its population through climate change and through the pursuit of ever-more risky approaches to resource extraction.  We appreciate that reducing our use of fossil fuels is a tremendous challenge: we are 'locked in' to our current ways of doing things by the choices we have made at a time of fossil fuel abundance. Any change we make will be painful and might seem less than rational in terms of immediate short term financial impact (although not if fossil fuel assets become ‘stranded’ as the Bank of England has recently warned). But the longer we wait before we take decisive action the worse the negative impacts are likely to be, and for this reason we respectfully request that you give very serious consideration to the case for divestment.
Those replies that I received were very largely supportive: over 50 members of staff have agreed to add their names to the petition. But I also received a number of thoughtful comments, and I thought I should share those through a Cabot Institute blog as a contribution to a debate on the topic.

Of those who declined to offer support, the most frequent reason offered was that the subject was too political – I received emails from colleagues saying that they were supportive in principle, but that it was “above their pay grade” or that they did not want to tie the hands of the University’s management.  For others, the University had important relationships with industry, especially with the petro-chemical industry – as sponsors of research and employers of our graduates – that might be threatened by divestment (and indeed an engineering student from the petro-chemical industry asked me why were we not also targeting the aerospace and automobile industries, among others, whose activities were leading to the demand for fossil fuels).

There were dissenters on technical grounds also.  A number of colleagues felt that to lump all fossil fuels together was much too indiscriminate, that natural gas and shale gas at least should play an important role in the transition to a low carbon future, and that technologies such as carbon capture and storage should be a part of future energy strategy.  For another respondent the difficulties in transitioning to alternative fuels were underestimated. Another felt that we should not divest until we have a viable alternative.  He believed that this could be nuclear, but that we needed to address the issues of the long-term storage of waste first (and he believed it was addressable).  Other colleagues admonished me for the way I wrote the statement of support.  I had suggested that divestment would be painful, but that I believed that the pain would be worth enduring because the consequences of runaway climate change were so unthinkable.  I was reproached by one writer for being too pessimistic – he said that the track record of market-based measures for reducing fossil fuel use is excellent: putting a price on pollution is very effective and it's not even that costly.  For another colleague the letter was insufficiently assertive.  We should request that the University divest itself from investments in fossil fuel industries, not just consider it!

Image courtesy of Fossil Free University of Bristol.
The responses that I received have caused me to re-examine my views, but I have not substantially changed them.  I still believe that we must very actively transition away from fossil fuels, even if it means significant changes in our lifestyles (and I remain convinced that it will).  As one colleague said we have reached a point where all scenarios are painful and that the logical thing to do is to act as quickly as possible to minimise the long term impact.  But the responses also demonstrated to me that there is an appetite in the University for an informed debate on the topic, and I hope that this blog entry and any responses that it attracts will be a helpful contribution to that debate.


Kevin Anderson's commentary in Nature Geoscience this month and reproduced in his blog at is very relevant to the divestment debate.  His conclusion that " . . even a slim chance of 'keeping below' a 2°C rise . .  now demands a revolution in how we both consume and produce energy. Such a rapid and deep transition will have profound implications for the framing of contemporary society" is in line very much with the sentiments behind the divestment campaign, and supports the need for urgent action.

This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Prof Chris McMahon from the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Bristol.
Prof Chris McMahon

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