A recent joint statement from the Climate and Health Alliance and the Climate Council outlined the following four health impacts of coal mining for which there is clear evidence:
- coal mining and burning coal for electricity emits toxic and carcinogenic substances into our air, water and land;
- coal pollution is linked to the development of potentially fatal diseases and studies show severe health impacts on miners, workers and local communities;
- Australia’s heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation and massive coal industry expansion present significant risks to the health of communities, families and individuals; and
- emissions from coal mine fires, like the recent Hazelwood mine fire in Victoria, and the release of heavy metal and organic compounds, pose health risks for surrounding populations, such as respiratory and heart disease, cancers and other health conditions.
This evidence does not appear to have reached the University of New South Wales Council which last week discussed the university’s $50m investment in companies involved with fossil fuels. The Council voted against divesting the university of these resources and instead supported a continuation of its current investment strategy. The following memo from President of the Council and Vice-Chancellor of the University outlines the Council’s position on this issue (*see below for updated response from UNSW academics):
At the University Council meeting on Monday 20 October we discussed our investment approach. The following statement summarises our position.
“UNSW currently holds investments of about $50m in a portfolio of $309m in companies involved in fossil fuels (see link <https://www.unsw.edu.au/sites/default/files/documents/UNSW%20Equities_30June14.pdf> ). These investments are held indirectly, as the University invests in unit trusts whose managers decide on specific stock allocation.
The University Council recently considered this matter and resolved overwhelmingly to maintain the current approach rather than withdraw from fossil fuel investments.
This position was reached against the background of UNSW taking very seriously the issue of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. We are significant contributors over many years to research into cleaner coal, alternate energy technologies, low carbon living and climate change. Our world-leading work in solar energy began in the 1960s.
Moreover, we conduct this research by working closely with industry and government, believing we will have greater impact in addressing climate change through partnerships than via token political actions. And we back our views with our behaviour, running a campus with the lowest emissions per student of any of the reporting universities, according to the Clean Energy Regulator. We also invest in a range of clean energy sources such as solar panels and co-generation.
We recognise that fossil fuels will be needed for many years to come to provide the energy and materials on which millions of lives depend.
In reaching our position, we note the words of Drew Faust, President of Harvard, who warned of the risk of using investment funds in ways “that would appear to position the University as a political actor rather than an academic institution”.
“Conceiving of the endowment not as an economic resource, but as a tool to inject the University into the political process or as a lever to exert economic pressure for social purposes, can entail serious risks to the independence of the academic enterprise. The endowment is a resource, not an instrument to impel social or political change.”
President and Vice-Chancellor
A group of academics from UNSW has responded to the letter from Fred Hilmer (above) expressing their disappointment with the University Council’s decision:
Dear Vice-Chancellor and Council,
Thank you for your email informing us of your decision not to pursue fossil fuel divestment here at UNSW. We must say, however, that we are very disappointed. We are even somewhat surprised that you are so comfortable ignoring scientists and a growing portion of the investment community who tell us that the status quo cannot and will not last.
You have comprehensively failed to respond to most of the points we raised in our open letter, apparently ignoring all the warning signs and calls for us to take responsible action in management as well as research.
You remind us that we make significant contributions to a better society and low carbon living through research and development – we know, we are the researchers. We are the scientists, doctors, engineers, and social analysts.
We are in a unique position to understand the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change. We also recognise that climate change is happening now – the extremes and unpredictability disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable and exacerbating human rights issues. Natural disasters are causing more destruction, crops are failing, the islands of our Pacific neighbours are being claimed by rising sea levels.
Research provides a critical service to society, one we are proud of, but who will apply our research if capital is not shifted away from fossil fuels? Who will drive our politicians away from subsidising polluting industries? The time has passed for support in principle, the time has come for determined action.
UNSW’s motto is ‘Never Stand Still’, yet your response indicates complacency to stand in line with industry and government and resist progress. Once again we reiterate; it is our responsibility as an educational and social institution to demonstrate pragmatic leadership, the kind recently called for by the President of the World Bank.
You assert that fossil fuels are necessary to provide the energy and materials that humans depend on. The fact that you highlight this fosters a determined ignorance of the very research being conducted at UNSW. We are producing ever more efficient solar panels, have created a record breaking solar car, and have repeatedly demonstrated the feasibility and benefits of a 100% renewable energy grid in Australia.
You refer to divestment as tokenism – a movement taking everyone by surprise with its momentum and potential to drive change. Generating 0.3% of electricity used on campus from solar PV, the very technology we develop, that is tokenism. A disingenuous provision for ethics in an investment policy is tokenism. The myriad of other financial, social and educational institutions that have already made the decision to divest understand that ethical investment is in fact a powerful tool for change.
You quote the words of Drew Faust, President of Harvard, concerning the politicisation of our endowment. To suggest that investments are entirely objective and apolitical is to ignore history and nullify UNSW’s own ethical investment policy. To do nothing is a political choice, and continuing to invest our endowment in firms that resist the change we need is a political action. The shares currently owned by UNSW are predicated on the assumption that we will burn all known fossil fuel reserves while looking for more; in other words, betting on a future our society will not survive.
We urge you to reconsider your decision – to listen to the community, the science, the writing on the wall. We have an opportunity to lead, we should take it.
UNSW Academics and Alumni for Divestment