What are the costs (social and environment) of divesting from fossil fuel companies? A personal view from “climateer”


While opening Café Politique on Tuesday 28th April 2015, Holly Flynn-Pierce noted that this event had been solely organised by a graduate student of Ustinov College, namely myself, a PhD student in Political Geography and affiliate researcher of the Durham Energy Institute. In my opinion, this discussion was a landmark debate — all three speakers gave an excellent account of three similar opinions about Divestment from fossil fuels. It is true that intellectual curiosity as an academic has been the main reason for investigating so-called ‘discourse’ on the Divestment movement. I also feel a responsibility to perform a role — as an academic, as a poet, and as a global citizen.

This blog appears exactly one month after the Café Politique event for a few reasons. I hope that this blog post acts as a follow-up to discussion about Durham’s Divestment from fossil fuels campaign; to pick up the discussion from where ‘we’ left off; to offer further clarity about the arguments raised. This blog also appears exactly one month before I perform poetry at the Empty Shop, Durham, on 28th June 2015 on the theme of global fossil fuel use and climate change. This live performance will take place as part of the Footprint Modulation initiative hosting live commentaries, performances and debates exploring climate change, global justice and human displacement.

Finally, this is a blog post by me; not representative of the entire Divestment from fossil fuels campaign; not a representation of the ideas of the three academic speakers at Café Politique; not a voice on behalf of others in Durham who are either a part or yet to become a part of the general debate — although many of these camps might agree with me. I aim to raise awareness on this debate and call for others to continue raising the profile of the campaign in Durham, which is a city not only historically of huge significance to ‘energy politics’ in the UK but home to a leading academic institution in both physical and human fields of geography.

Divestment at Durham a month ago

One month ago I introduced my research briefly on European imaginaries of Arctic space, which I explore through analyses of energy and climate change discourse. The exploration of ‘discourse’ — in the popular sense of the meaning — is interesting because it indicates the significance of politics in relation to energy and climate security issues that everyday people face as highly influential actors like national governments and fossil fuel companies seek to address them. With regard to energy and climate security, many agree that the stakes are unbearably high as the human population continues to grow and ‘develop’ at an unprecedented pace while growing carbon emissions lead to rising degrees of global warming and climate change.

With regard to Durham and the UK, the stakes are no different. This is why I organised a panel of speakers to discuss the Divestment from fossil fuels movement, which had originally spurred attention in the USA but thereafter gained momentum across the world and strongly in the United Kingdom. All three speakers were aware of the importance of popular discourse in the run up to the next major United Nations intergovernmental conference on climate change. Many participants were excited to hear that the Divestment from fossil fuels movement has been promoted by the UN itself, while media companies like The Guardian newspaper in the UK contribute to popularising the movement.

One month ago the stage was set for a discussion on whether Divestment at Durham University could lead to social and environmental costs. Most interestingly, the three speakers constituted a plethora of public positions: two professors; two Durham University graduates; one former oil industry exec; one ordained priest; and all writers of published material on the theme of energy and climate change. Thus presentations were varied and included Professor Jon Gluyas’ on energy production; Mr James Leaton on carbon financing; and Professor Michael Northcott on the political theology of climate change. Presentations were followed by questions from the audience in an informal setting comprising members of the public, climate change financiers and academics such as the Principal of Ustinov College, Professor Glenn McGregor, a respected climatologist.

Divestment of fossil fuel industry stocks

Professor Jon Gluyas was the first to mention how, in 2014, Glasgow University became Europe’ first university to divest its fossil fuel stocks. Glasgow is one of 800 organisations to do the same on the basis that emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels has raised the atmospheric content from 260 particles per million (ppm) to today’s 400 ppm with consequent climate change. Thus, he concluded, the fossil fuel industry is considered to be at blame and the aim of the movement joined by Glasgow is to remove the mandate for business of multi-national fossil fuel companies.

However, the movement raises important questions: is Big Oil (gas and coal) to blame? If the campaign is successful, will emissions be reduced? Will national energy security be compromised? Will energy poverty increase? Climate science demonstrates that emissions from fossil fuel burning have increased atmospheric CO2 while studies of the geological past have also proven that high atmospheric CO2 content drives mass extinction. Many would therefore ask, if continued use of fossil fuels would appear suicidal, why continue? Firstly, fossil fuels are energy dense and humankind craves fossil fuels’ cheap energy for purposes of development and future sustainability. In other words, the use of the short term use of fossil fuels brings huge benefits.

One other key argument by the Professor is the geopolitical fear of restricting the power of multi-nationals corporations in the face of competition to control the world’s fossil fuel markets. The general sentiment for this argument is stopping the production and supply of fossil fuels from multi-national companies would lead to the further monopolisation of the industry by ‘unscrupulous’ nationally-owned companies that already own rights to around 90% of global oil and gas reserves. In other words, Gluyas believes that the emasculation of companies like those targeted in the UK will have no effect on carbon emissions because supply will continue under demand and power will shift to companies uninfluenced by scientific evidence or public concern, which will decrease energy security and increase energy poverty.

As citizens hoping for a transition to a future dominated by renewable energy the Professor argues that we must use the technology of the big oil and gas corporations to geo-store CO2 and develop near zero carbon geo-thermal energy. Based on his own research at Durham University, Gluyas estimates this could cut 40% of of the UK’s emissions in twenty years and possibly even go carbon negative in 50 years. Gluyas voiced these arguments earlier this month in University World News, namely that the human race is dependent on fossil fuels and that multi-national corporations are essential to our own British society, both to address the balance of power in the world energy markets and to ensure research goes ahead to curb future carbon emissions.

How to make capital flows fit within the carbon budget

James Leaton from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, London, draws on discourse in fields of economic and climate science, which tells us that the remaining carbon budget to give the planet a chance of limiting warming to 2°C clearly exceeds the coal, oil and gas in the ground (see Carbon Bubble report). Even optimistic projections of CCS application only increase the carbon budget by 14% to 2050. If this can be implemented economically to new emissions sources it moves the dial but does not change the fundamental conclusion that some fossil fuels must stay in the ground compared to business as usual projections of consumption.

This climate logic has prompted those investing in fossil fuels to start questioning who the winners and losers will be. This discourse founds Leaton’s presentation on ‘how to make capital flows fit within the carbon budget,’ which argues that all fossil fuels are not equal in terms of cost, carbon intensity, potential substitution, and geographic distribution, which is why the energy transition towards a low carbon future is a complicated financial challenge we must all work hard to address. Such a provocative economic analysis is much needed today, especially with regard to forcing governments and other influential institutions to take seriously the repercussions of investing in an industry that contributes towards a ‘carbon bubble’ about to go bust.

Leaton’s presentation explored coal and oil, which are two of the most productive forms of energy with the highest output of carbon emissions. Both energy sectors provide insight into understanding the implications of the fossil fuel industry on the rest of the world in terms of economic growth and stability while also factoring climate change reduction. Regardless of whether Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a viable solution to carbon emissions it is still ‘late to the game,’ Leaton says, because the cost of applying this technology to new streams is too expensive. Essentially, the most challenging assumptions about the current status of fossil fuels relates to the future of the energy sector: does this include electric vehicles? Is storage technology viable?  What are the costs of renewables? How do we factor international developments like Chinese peak coal demand on oil volatility, climate change reduction or GDP growth rates?

With regard to the cost of Divestment at Durham from an economic perspective the movement appears logical as governments and other influential institutions have shown signs of moving away from high cost carbon projects and collectively aiming to meet carbon emissions reduction targets. As demonstrated by the Bank of England putting climate change on its research agenda, regulators are starting to recognise that the financial system is crucial to make a smooth transition in the public sphere but is this must be complemented by other positive changes. The economic logic behind the ‘carbon bubble’ discourse thus favours an active Divestment from fossil fuels.

A political theology of change

Professor Northcott’s presentation depicted the energy and climate change discourse occurring on different levels of political awareness and activism. Northcott’s  main theoretical claim is that national and international politics and modern political theory are ill suited to the global emergency that is humanly caused climate change. Those nations most responsible for causing it have become rich on the back of fossil fuel extraction and use while nations already suffering from human-influenced extreme weather have had few of the fruits of this great twentieth century economic bonanza. This inequality of gains from the fossil fuel industry is most evident in countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Syria and Mali, which are home to major sources of migrants to Europe in the wake of experiencing dramatic declines in crop productivity due to enduring drought and raised temperatures.

However, fossil fuel owning nations refuse to consider restraining fossil fuel extraction. Instead the UN framework convention on climate change process around climate change focuses on emissions, which Northcott likens to ‘shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.’ With regard to Divestment at Durham, Northcott agrees that the movement rightly understands the need to keep fossil fuels in the ground. On the other hand, the movement targets private multi-national corporations and investors as if they are the sovereigns of fossil fuels. The Professor’s presentation argued vehemently for the need to see the reality of politics of energy and climate change, which in reality is governed by nation states licensing fossil fuel extraction within their territories.

The theoretical point Northcott argues is worth noting with regard to the Divestment movement, namely that targeting fossil fuel stocks and companies as opposed to government licenses to extract fossil fuels colludes with a larger neoliberal tendency to downgrade sovereign power. Discourse on neoliberalism is used by nations like the UK to promote private capital and consumer decisions, which divert attention from the true essence of their sovereignty. As noted in A Political Theology of Climate Change, this misidentification can be traced back to the political theology of John Locke who identified the nation state’s core role to protect productive use of ‘nature’ by farmers, miners and others.

The neglect of the spatial aspect sovereignty is now endemic in national and international politics as Carl Schmitt first argued in his important book Nomos of the Earth. Climate change reveals again the wisdom of the ancients in linking sovereignty with territory by Previous identifying sovereignty of nation states with rule over a boundaried terrain. One must therefore exercise caution when naming and shaming multi-national corporations only because in a world where neoliberal development has become the status quo governments should be held accountable for private activity in the energy sector and not the other way around.

One month later

The most relevant points raised on the 28th April 2015 can be divided into three core discourses: the need to work with the fossil fuel industry (to use its technological expertise, its political influence on the international stage and its will to facilitate sustainable growth in the developing world) versus the need to cut our losses with the fossil fuel industry (to stop investing in an unviable economic project, to start investing in carbon neutral technologies) versus the need to address the real culprits of the great carbon emissions (i.e. nation states). All of these embody a ‘contested terrain’ in the public sphere.

As Professor Gluyas mentioned in reference to Durham as an historic contested terrain in its own right, the coal industry used to be taxed by the Prince Bishop whereas during the peak in coal combustion in 1991 over three hundred million tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted from the UK, which amounts to the equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s total oil reserve. Combined with Professor Northcott’s political theology critique of the Divestment movement it seems that although there is a huge will to act on climate change it seems prudish not to assert that nation states are to blame for the current situation the developing world find themselves in.

Ethical considerations call for direct action against fossil fuel corporations that seem to sanction ‘Tar Sands,’ ‘BP blowouts’ or other scandals concerning the destruction of local environments and indigenous communities. With due respect to these controversial issues the Divestment movement is a worthy cause, indeed, but governments must also be held accountable. Moreover, Leaton and other experts in the financial, insurance and business sectors are right in calling for Divestment from the fossil fuel sectors in light of climate change reduction targets — though a huge portion of investment logic is influenced by government intervention.

In a world where capitalist growth and social welfare are depicted by governments as complementary policies the Divestment movement adds a sharper critique to nation state itself by calling for direct action from across a plethora of positions within the public sphere. So far these have included the academic sphere, faith sphere, financial and business sphere — and, as we will hopefully see by the end of the year at the COP21, the political sphere. Solutions vary according to contested understandings about the fossil fuel industry and its role in energy and climate change politics. However, what is certain is that climate change is a problem we need to solve together, which is why global Divestment movements are important in raising awareness of an alternative position to the existing status quo and applying pressure to intellectuals, policy-makers and investors in our collective future.

One month from now

In about one month Durham will host the Footprint Modulation, which comprises a bunch of exciting talks, performances, live film screenings and poetry readings organised local artists, transition activists and academics from Durham University. Academic discussions about forced migration due to climate change and the  effects of a steady increase in climate change follow a similar initiative called Ice and Climate, which was held this month in Newcastle as a collaborative project between the Life Centre and Durham University. This level of scientific engagement with the public  is essential to raise awareness of climate change using a wider platform of interactive forms. Similarly, Divestment at Durham as a social movement requires the same degree of curiosity to understand the likely repercussions of breaking financial ties between the public sphere and the fossil fuel industry, which equates to heeding the climate change problems we face across the world.

Being a poet and a scientist in the field of energy and climate politics I would argue that my own perspective on ‘social change’ remains steadfast within ‘discursive formations’ or ‘social structures’ that emerge from an understanding about problems different groups face. Thus Café Politique, Ice and Climate, and Footprint Modulation    projects have a great deal in common — they rope different subjective views together in order to harness the greater understanding of the problem that is atmospheric climate change. Sitting in our own ‘academic silos’ is not beneficial in the long run, the Academic Director of Kaleidoscope once told me at Ustinov College. And academic structures are no different to those existing in the public sphere at large, which is why calls for public engagement is vital to legitimise science, policy and decision-making with regard to investing in the fossil fuel industry.

The poem that I am writing and performing in one month explores one hundred years of fossil fuel use and its subsequent impact on the natural and social world. The syllabic structure mirror the growth in years and metaphorically reflects the carbon particles per million amassing polluting the atmosphere as the world ‘develops’ under the weight of its threatening need for growth. More importantly, my work features alongside other contributions from a rich multitude of artists, academics and leading public figures who want to connect the public sphere in a collective movement  to solve climate change. I am therefore very pleased to be among those who will be present in Durham throughout the Footprint Modulation project and encourage any future projects dedicated to raising awareness.