Australian Universities Should Listen To Students And Divest From Fossil Fuels

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Students around the country are currently taking part in mass demonstrations to protest the link between fossil fuels and Australia’s universities because tertiary institutions have ignored their concerns on climate change and left them with few options, writes Greens MLC Mehreen Faruqi.

Brave students have already this week occupied the Chancellery buildings at UNSW and the University of Queensland, and more demonstrations of this nature are planned across the country in the coming week.

Australia’s universities are compromising the future of our planet by investing in dangerous, polluting fossil fuels and this is understandably unacceptable to their students, staff and the rest of the community who want climate action.

So far, Vice-Chancellors have refused to engage on the matter, despite students’ overwhelming support for their universities to take the lead and move their investments away from fossil fuels.

Student surveys have found that 97 per cent of University of Melbourne students and 78 per cent of University of New South Wales students support divestment, and more than 1500 University of Queensland students signed a similar petition.

And it is not only students who advocate divesting from fossil fuels.

Recently, more than 450 ANU academics signed an open letter to Nobel Laureate and new Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt to “demand ANU take leadership on this issue [by] fully breaking ties with the fossil fuel industry”.

In spite of this overwhelming support, we are yet to see any action.

Universities must listen to the voices of their students and faculty. I commend the students who are standing up and taking peaceful action to pressure their institutions to act on climate change.

I recently joined around 40 students at my alma mater and former workplace, the University of New South Wales, to march through campus and demand change and it is inspiring to see a growing student and staff movement has been building in opposition to the university’s shameful fossil-fuel investments. Indeed, it is hypocritical for many universities to purport to care about the future of the planet while directly driving catastrophic climate change through their investments. By refusing to move on this issue, they are undermining their important leadership role in Australian life.

Universities enrich our society – not only because they provide students with knowledge and skills, but also because they are institutions of public good that provide moral and intellectual leadership on the key issues of the day. Climate change is not a hypothetical scenario that may one day affect us. The realities of climate change are being felt now and primarily by those who had little to do with creating anthropogenic global warming.

Island nations like Kiribati are sinking beneath the ocean; record-breaking temperatures robbed the Arctic of its last winter; the Great Barrier Reef is perishing in front of our eyes; and February was the hottest month ever. Last year, bushfires in Western Australia raged so fiercely that they created their very own weather system. There have been major and steady declines in biodiversity, while losses of species are higher than ever before.

The immediate health impacts of burning fossil fuels are equally as alarming. In Pakistan, the country I grew up in, fossil-fuel combustion is responsible for over 90 per cent of total carbon emissions, and 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. Air quality is incredibly poor, and according to the World Bank, in 2005 air pollution directly or indirectly led to 22,600 deaths per year.  

We know that much-needed and urgent solutions are not going to come from the current Coalition government: They are completely captured by big mining and the fossil fuel industry.

Local government, however, must be congratulated for leading the way in divestment. More than 18 councils, representing 1.5 million people have moved their funds away from dirty fossil fuels. It can be done. But councils don’t have the capacity nor the institutional power that universities have and that’s why it is time for our educational institutions to step up.

Every week more institutions are taking a moral and financial stand and divesting from fossil fuels. Globally, over 500 institutions, representing $3.4 trillion, have committed to move their money out of coal, oil and gas companies.

Australian universities must join this courageous movement for change. We need bold action from our universities now more than ever. Adapting to climate change and transitioning our economy and society will require new thinking, imagination and cutting edge ideas. Universities are well-equipped to be at the forefront of this endeavour.

It is time for all universities to listen to their staff, their students, and the science.

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Mehreen Faruqi

Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a NSW Greens MP and a civil and environmental engineer.

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