Climate Justice at Pembroke

An interview with Grace Blackshaw and Sophie Bell, the campaign officers for the Pembroke Orchard Green Society.

Could you tell us a little about POGS and the work that it does in college?

POGs is a green society where students can discuss environmental topics, particularly those related to current events. Discussions recently have been on divestment, and other ways college can work to be more sustainable. We’re also able to put our views forward to college, to make them aware of the changes we’d like to see in college.

POGS’ latest and most ambitious campaign is the Pembroke Climate Justice campaign, whose aim is for Pembroke College to commit to full divestment from fossil fuels. Why is this so important?

Divestment is, first and foremost, a symbolic act. The campaign’s main aim is to send a clear signal to the broader community and to BP, Shell, and Exxon Mobil, that world-renowned institutions like Pembroke College and Cambridge University more broadly will no longer profit from the companies that have knowingly been destroying our planet for decades.

Ellen Quigley’s recent report, which laid the groundwork for the University’s landmark decision, explains that divestment allows institutions “to act with integrity and avoid the moral tarnish that comes from investing in, and thus being supportive of and complicit in, the injustices and grave harms entailed in the fossil fuel industry business model.”

Materially, if fewer institutions invest in fossil fuels, it will start to become less lucrative for fossil fuel companies and they will be encouraged to switch to more sustainable alternatives. Clearly, it is vital for us to urgently move away from the use of fossil fuels, with irreversible climate change imminent unless we make changes now.

As many Pembroke students will be aware, in October of this year the central University announced its intention to divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030. What implications, if any, does this have for Pembroke and its investments?

First, regarding practical implications, Pembroke has £15.6 million invested specifically in the Cambridge University Endowment Fund, which is the fund that will now be fully divested by 2030. Most importantly though, the central University’s decision sets an important precedent for colleges. Exactly a week after the University announcement, Christ’s College also committed to full divestment. Colleges are increasingly following the University’s example and realising that divestment is now inevitable. This is why now is such a promising time for us to start putting pressure on College to divest.

Recently there has been a shift in emphasis from personal lifestyle choices to lobbying of larger organisations. Do you believe one is more important than the other? Are lifestyle choices still important?

Given that research suggests 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions, it is absolutely imperative that we hold governments and large companies accountable. That said, individual action does have a role to play as our personal lifestyle choices can reduce the demand for the organisation to continue these actions. Individuals can also choose not to financially support companies who carry out environmentally-damaging actions, instead supporting companies promoting sustainability. Lifestyle choices therefore do have some importance, but this should not take away from the responsibility of larger companies. Arguably, the most important thing we can do as individuals is to hold these companies to account, whether that’s signing a petition, attending a protest, voting for politicians with the next climate policies and or supporting a college divestment campaign!

The debate over divestment is often painted as being between financial propriety on the one hand, and moral and environmental responsibility on the other. How accurate is this portrayal of the debate? Is there perhaps a less oppositional way we could reframe it in order to emphasise its benefits?

Yes, there is! Again in the words of Ellen Quigley, “There is little evidence to suggest that a global portfolio invested to exclude fossil fuels would underperform one that included them and such a portfolio might avoid the volatility that is likely to affect the fossil fuel sector in the coming years.”

Fossil fuels will not remain a viable long-term investment, with the increased use of alternatives. This means divestment is not only the morally and politically correct thing to do but the most sensible economic decision.

What makes a Cambridge college an effective space to create social change? What can Pembroke students do to mobilise in favour of divestment within College?

The reputation of the University means that it will set an example that other institutions will be inclined to follow. If more colleges begin to take action, it sends a message to the wider community that this action can, and should, be taken.

Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll be publicising different ways for students to show their support for divestment, from open letters to banner drops. For now, follow Pembroke Climate Justice on Facebook, and don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions!