Ever since I first set foot in Trinity I knew I wanted to study here. This was in part, I suppose, due to the stately imposing buildings and chattering colourful students. More than anything, I was attracted to how current the college felt. At the time, every second news story I heard was about Trinity.
Their academics seemed to win awards non-stop, and illustrious speakers and politicians were constantly dropping in to speak for an hour or two. Stood under the sprawling trees of Front Square, the university was a hiccup in my understanding of time – absorbed in ancient history, but concurrently hurtling violently into the future, balancing on the brink of everything to come.
Recently I have lost a little faith in Trinity – because when it comes to some issues, Trinity isn’t hurtling. It’s crawling at a snail’s pace. I’m speaking now with particular reference to Trinity’s continued investment in fossil fuels.
It has been the best part of three months since the Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union passed a motion to support divestment from fossil fuels and other unethical assets. I remember feeling happy but unsurprised when I heard the news. All my suspicions had been confirmed – Trinity must be a progressive, prolific, innovative institution. I had complete faith.
I had been smugly telling friends abroad about the decision, quoting the college’s Sustainable Development Policy, highlighting that Trinity’s “role in and … responsibility to society to promote sustainable development throughout its activities” means that “teaching, research, services and administrative operations should be conducted in a manner that protects and enhances the environment, conserves natural resources, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and supports the community and society as a whole”.
I bought wholeheartedly into the Provost’s Strategic Plan. I could have written it myself! “Trinity has a responsibility to conduct its activities in a manner that protects and enhances the environment, conserves natural resources, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and supports society as a whole”. I felt no need to doubt these claims, wrapped up in reassured superior institutional morality. Why wouldn’t I take them at face value?
Student frustration is mounting within the divestment movement. Aside from the €6.1m invested in oil-related stocks, Trinity has also been criticised for the €850,000 it has invested in arms companies. There is now a concern amongst campaigners that the Board may be delaying meeting in order to avoid addressing the student groundswell for an ethical investment policy, or to wait until a potentially less active Students’ Union President is elected.
Áine O’Gorman, a second year BESS student and a leading member of the Fossil Free TCD campaign, explains that the Fossil Free movement is a platform to move against all irresponsible investments: “In its strategic plan, Trinity continuously makes reference to its influence and prominence on local, national and global stages.”
She continued, “We believe that by being invested in companies such as Fossil Fuel Companies, Tobacco and Arms, Trinity is not only latently supporting their unethical practices, but through its influence is sending a message that these types of investments are socially legitimate.”
She goes on to explain that the divestment campaign is not expected to bankrupt the carbon-based industry, but that “while many people reject divestment as nothing but gesture politics with negligible effects, its main aim is to send a powerful message of stigmatisation.” She references the fact that “Trinity has already shown the power and influence it has in this area when it divested from Apartheid South Africa. We are joining movements on universities across the world from Sydney to Edinburgh to Stanford and would love for Trinity to lead the way in Ireland.”
However, as it now transpires, Trinity is not leading the way in Ireland.
Trinity- A Global Leader?
While we still have millions invested in these hugely damaging industries, alongside similarly irresponsible stocks in arms and tobacco, other universities are streaming past us in terms of sustainable investments. It was not so long ago that the Queen’s University Belfast Fossil Free campaign successfully occupied their university’s administration building, compelling their Investment Committee to review its investment policy, including a workshop with the Fossil Free campaign group “to help inform the investment policy review.”
Meanwhile in Munster, University College Cork is to become Ireland’s first third-level institute to use electricity supplied entirely from renewable sources. According to the Irish Examiner, UCC will be provided with 100% renewable energy from Electric Ireland over the next two years, and the contract entails that UCC’s 96 sites across Cork will be provided with electricity generated solely from wind and biomass sources.
In the Examiner article, Denis Brosnan, UCC Energy Manager, comments, “It is very important as a university to support and promote sustainable and renewable energy.”
It would appear from Trinity’s written declarations that we would agree with this opinion. True, it would seem that as an institute we maintain our claims of energy sustainability through the Green Campus initiative, but is it enough? Are we truly a “global leader in university sustainability”, as the Strategic Plan professes?
I was sitting down with Tadhg Moore of the Environmental Society in UCC in his kitchen last weekend, as he told me that UCC, like NUI Maynooth, has no money invested in fossil fuels. This is a result of the financial crisis: UCC’s pension fund was in deficit and was eventually transferred to the State, as was the situation with a number of other Irish Universities.
Leaning back over his sticker-splattered laptop, he related UCC’s readiness to “promote the fact they are fossil fuels free”, elaborating that, as energy resources become more important, an institution’s stance on energy “will be something that students look into when choosing a university.”
He puts on the kettle and starts recounting how a new UCC university-wide module on sustainability was established based on the 2030 United Nations Millennium Development Goals. The module is “open to all students and staff, and anyone with an interest in sustainability from outside the university”. It is also free of charge.
Raving about the module coordinator, Dr Gerard Mullally of the Department of Sociology, Tadhg grins: “It’s only a pilot but it’s definitely exciting.” I can’t help feeling jealous. He sits down, puts a cup of tea in front of me, and adds that students of UCC are working with the Buildings and Estates department to draft a statement for ethical investment by UCC. At this stage, I am beyond envious, and am a little disgruntled.
Is there such staff support for student movements in Trinity? It varies. Several faculty members have signed an open letter to the College Board, which will be released at Divestment Week February 8, supporting the divestment movement.
However, the majority of these staff are lecturers from fields of science. Dr. Derek Doherty (Associate Professor and Head of Immunology), Dr. Jacintha O’Sullivan (Associate Professor of Surgery), and a host of various Geography lecturers are all examples of signatories. Reassuringly there has also been administrative and managerial signatories, such as Prof Aideen Long, Dean of Graduate Studies, Mr. Noel McCann, Head of Campus Services, and Fr Alan O’ Sullivan, Chaplain.
However, looking at the list of staff members contacted versus the list of supporting staff members, one can’t help but conclude that the overwhelming attitude of the faculty to the ethical investment movement is that of indifference.
Ben Rimaud, a Political Science and Geography student in Trinity, has experienced opposition to the movement within the Geology department of the college: “We were disappointed by some member of staff’s reluctance to engage with the campaign in any form. We think this might be due to fears of funding cuts in the face of divestment.”
It would seem that researchers within the department who are currently focusing on investigating hydrocarbon, mineral and groundwater resources, are fearful of agitating those funding their projects, or potential funders, by supporting the campaign. Petroleum Development Oman, African Tullow Oil, and SOCO International PLC (an international oil and gas exploration and production company), are all funders of Trinity Geology research, and would logically have a vested interest in the development and manipulation of carbon-based fuels
If this were the case, it would be quite a disparate one. As Ben points out: “We have not been able to find any evidence for this to be an issue in other cases of divestment.“
Geology students would also appear to have motivations to protect the fossil fuel industry; a petroleum geologist’s starting salary is often cited at around 100,000 U.S dollars per annum. I was sitting by the Divestment table in the arts block during RAG week when I overheard three geology students discussing this salary. Ben, recognising them, intercepted the group and began discussing the carbon industry with them. The generous salary was mentioned, as one of them laughed and asked her friends “Why wouldn’t you want that?”
Why indeed? Any basic reading on the correlation between the emissions from fossil fuels and global will warming would tell you why. But the science of climate change does not always have an effect on people.
However, the economic case for divestment is also a very strong one, as is demonstrated by the support of economists worldwide, and of David McWilliams and Noam Chomsky, for the TCD Fossil Fuel Divestment campaign alone.
To put it in very simple terms, the carbon bubble is an economic model based on a theory of stranded fossil fuel assets that will be utterly inevitable under the Paris Agreement made at the 21st United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Essentially, if the countries which have promised to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius are to stay true to their word, about 80 per cent of fossil fuel reserves must remain in the ground. This model is very easily accessible online at carbontracker.org.
To quote Áine again, “We are students of this College, and have a vested interest in its sustainable financial future and continued prestige … We are starting with our divestment from Fossil Fuels … In this particular case we have an additional financial imperative to divest because of the carbon bubble model.”
The science, economics, and ethics of fossil fuel divestment are all clear and uncomplicated. If so, why would the College Board defer its discussion to avoid the conversation? Is that the case at all? These are questions that are sure to be asked again and again during Divestment Week.
The week, beginning on Monday, will be held in order to give students and staff the opportunity to learn more about the drive for a principled and honest investment policy. However, unless the College Board agrees to seriously consider the topic of ethical investment, it is something that we may never achieve.