A Revival of student activism: Fueling divestment with Fossil Free TCD

Catherine Hearn of Fossil Free TCD outlines their campaign for the divestment of college funds from the fossil fuel industry


“Trinity had investments worth approximately €6.1m in companies such as Shell Global, ExxonMobil, BP and TransCanada Corporation.”

6.1 million euro is a lot of money – it’s a national lottery prize, a small island in the Philippines, or 62,500 years’ worth of Spotify premium. It is also the approximate amount of money that College currently have invested in Fossil Fuels. Fossil Free TCD is a student-founded and student-run activist group which is actively campaigning for college divestment from the fossil fuel industry. Fossil Free activists are fighting college investment in the industry because they believe that, not only is it an environmentally irresponsible activity to be involved in, but it is also poor financial strategy, particularly in light of the recent Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

The Paris Agreement

The Paris Agreement on climate change, which was negotiated by 197 heads of state last December, came into effect on the November 4 2016. The key aim of the Paris Agreement is ‘holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to pre-industrial levels’.  In order to achieve this, parties to the Convention will not only have to divest from current fossil fuel projects but also to halt any further fossil fuel development. In short, we have to keep the oil, coal and gas resources that we already have in the ground, and we have to stop looking for new ones. The Agreement has since been ratified by 103 parties to the Convention, including some major contributors to the production of greenhouse gas, like China.

This strategy for curbing climate change does not bode well for Trinity’s continued investment in fossil fuels. As an investment, it makes little economic sense (even to me, an arts student with an abominably poor grasp of mathematics) because the ‘keep it in the ground’ movement means that, as long as the resources remain in the ground, Trinity will gain little or no return on their investment in fossil fuels. Considering the range of financial challenges that our institution is already facing, it would make more sense to divest.

History of Fossil Free TCD

“The fundamental aim of Fossil Free TCD is divestment. This means that Trinity needs to sell its existing stocks, bonds, or investment funds in fossil fuels and freeze any new investments.”

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in July 2015 by Colm Tong, founder of Fossil Free TCD, revealed that Trinity had investments worth approximately 6.1 million euro in companies such as Shell Global, ExxonMobil, BP and TransCanada Corporation. Tong was inspired by divestment movements in other universities across the world to set up Fossil Free TCD. Since the launch of Fossil Free TCD, NUIG, Maynooth and UCC have all filed similar Freedom of Information requests in an effort to get more student-run divestment campaigns off the ground. Fossil Free TCD liases with university divestment movements in America, Australia and England, as well as those in colleges around Ireland. The movement to divest has gained incredible momentum as more and more people have begun to realize the importance of divesting from fossil fuels.

The fundamental aim of Fossil Free TCD is divestment. This means that Trinity needs to sell its existing stocks, bonds, or investment funds in fossil fuels and freeze any new investments. Fossil Free are focused mainly on lobbying college authorities to divest. Their movement is gaining more support in the run up to a meeting of the TCD financial board today, November 15, in which the board will debate and discuss the merits of divestment, and ultimately reach a decision on the matter. In the days following, the board will either announce: ‘Yes. Trinity will divest!’, ‘Unsure, we haven’t decided yet’ or ‘No. Fossil fuels all the way!’ Fossil Free are calling for as many students as possible to join their efforts. Students can show their support by liking the Fossil Free TCD Facebook page, signing the online petition, attending Fossil Free meetings and taking part today in Divestment Day. Fossil Free need widespread support among the student body for their campaign among Trinity students to the board in order to ensure a vote for divestment.

Get involved

“Fossil Free activists want to inspire real change in the way Trinity operates.”

Now maybe you’re thinking ‘Wait there’s only a week left before they decide? How much a difference can I really make in that space of time?’. Let me put your mind at ease – you can make all the difference. Fossil Free TCD was founded primarily as a means of lobbying the powers that be in Trinity to divest from fossil fuels, but it has grown into so much more than that. Today (the day the financial board will meet to discuss divestment) Fossil Free activists will gather together on campus while the meeting is in progress. Following this, the group will travel to Buswell’s hotel for an event titled ‘Meet your TDs to talk about Climate Action’. In the course of one day, the group will expand from a campus-centered action group into lobbyists for change on a national level. Furthermore, following a decision of the board to divest (positive thinking here), it will be time to start thinking about reinvestment. Fossil Free will be keen to recruit aspiring economists, scientists, politicians and anything in between to forward ideas for the project.

To break it down, the direct impact of Trinity divesting is not, in itself, significant on a global level. However, the indirect impact is huge. The divestment campaign raises public awareness around the environmental and anthropological damage that fossil fuel companies do, it pressurizes governments into legislating on environmental issues, such as Ireland’s ratification of the Paris agreement, and increases uncertainty around fossil fuel companies’ ability to exploit proven reserves. If we scream ‘Hey Exxon, you’re destroying the environment’ and the government hear us, agree with us, and threaten to legislate in our favour, this makes it much more difficult for Exxon to convert their oil into liquid assets.

However, we are not primarily motivated by economic gain. The event that Fossil Free TCD staged on November 2, a solidarity protest with the Sioux tribe of Standing Rock, highlighted the very real pain and damage that our investments are helping to inflict on a global level. The Dakota Access Pipeline is a $3.78bn project which, once constructed, will cut right through Native American Sacred Lands and put drinking water at risk for millions of people. Trinity have €87,827 invested in the main corporations behind this pipeline. Thousands of protesters are camped at the front line in Cannonball, North Dakota in an attempt to halt construction. The project is a complete breach of an 1851 treaty which designates the entire area as sovereign land under the control of the Sioux tribe. There have been numerous reports of police brutality during conflicts between police and protesters, which have been ongoing since the establishment of the camp in April 2015. The main aim of the Fossil Free TCD solidarity action was to illuminate  the struggle of the protestors in Dakota. It was also an opportunity to engage Trinity students with the devastating consequences of continued fossil fuel investment.

Fossil Free activists want to inspire real change in the way Trinity operates. I got involved before I really understood the scope of the project and I’m so glad I did. It was a little intimidating, because I’d never really been involved in any activism before but the people were so welcoming and open to ideas. All my reservations had vanished by the end of the first meeting which was wonderfully informal, inclusive and great craic. I can’t encourage people enough to get involved in some kind of student activism, be it Fossil Free or any other one of the amazing activist societies on campus. Students are the ones with the time and the resources and the passion needed to instigate tangible positive change, and it can be done.