Big Debate: Should Newcastle University divest from fossil fuels?

The divestment movement has been stirring up legions of environmentalists in American college campuses over the last 18 months and now it seems the debate has arrived here in Newcastle. Supporters of the movement believe Universities have a moral responsibility to protect the planet and reject investment in fossil fuel companies, whereas opponents see it as unnecessary jeopardy to potential revenue and career paths for students.                                                                                                               Geographer Louise Bingham and Marine Biologist Jack Elliot Marley give their views.

YES to Divestment- Jack Elliot Marley

If you’re reading this then there’s a good chance that you’re a member of “Generation Y”. For you, Kurt Cobain was dead before you knew he’d ever existed and the 90s were a colourful blur. The children born to you, your friends, relatives and complete strangers over the next several years will fill the ranks of “Generation Z” and complete the alphabet of human progress. If you’re a young person alive today then it’s pretty apt that you’re labelled by the final letters of the ABCs because the future sadly doesn’t offer much hope for continuity in the way of life you’re accustomed to. There are a lot of scary things lurking around the upcoming corners of your life- the job market, the double dip, the national debt; but really they all pale in comparison to the threat facing you from climate change. To put into perspective how near this threat is, the most peer-reviewed scientific document in history came out recently and it said that if we are to have any hope of preventing runaway climate change (a scenario where our planet is rendered largely uninhabitable) we cannot emit more than a total of 880 gigatonnes of CO₂. We’ve already burned through more than 530 gigatonnes, we only have 30 years at most before we dive over that precipice. Leaving two thirds of all fossil fuel reserves remaining in the ground would do it, but the only way we can do that is to send a clear message that we won’t fund the destruction of our planet and that’s where the question of whether Newcastle should divest comes down to you.                                                                                                                                        What kind of legacy do you want to leave? Do you want to be remembered as the generation that stood up to the most powerful industry on Earth for the good of all life on it? Or would you rather pursue a forgettable path, toiling for greedy polluters that care nothing for your future whilst the planet burns? You and I face challenges like none that have faced those before us and for that reason, no one is coming to help us. The decision is yours but remember: Divestment is our Million Man March- our first step towards the future we all deserve. Previous generations didn’t shrink from shaping their legacy, it would be tragic for us and catastrophic for everything else if we turned away now.

NO to Divestment – Louise Bingham

Fossil fuels have been the primary source of external energy for thousands of years. Cave men burned coal as a heat source and the use of coal and other fossil fuels has been on the up since the Industrial revolution, where the demand for supply of energy increased with the appearance of new technologies. Coal has filled the role of the primary worldwide supplier of energy with gas and oil not far behind. Some scare-mongers have suggested that we will have fully exploited our known oil deposits by 2052 as we burn through crude oil at a rate of 4 billion tonnes per year. However, this simply isn’t true. New reserves of fossil fuels are constantly being discovered, and as our technologies improve we are finding new, cleaner methods of using fossil fuels with Newcastle University at the forefront of this research. For example, the use of methane from accelerated microbial degradation of coal to gas in situ.

The high energy efficiency and reliability of fossil fuels is proven, unfortunately the same cannot be said for the alternatives. The main alternatives to fossil fuels include wind, solar and nuclear power which are far less efficient and often rely on external factors such as the weather conditions which also make them far less reliable. If Newcastle University where to change its energy supply to an alternative to fossil fuels, the conversion itself would end up burning more fossil fuels than the University uses in five years due to construction, transportation and set up of a new energy supply. This, combined with the cost of making the switch, makes changing the University’s energy supply to a renewable source a financial mistake as well as a logistical nightmare.

Newcastle University should make the sensible decision to continue with its use of fossil fuels which have provided its energy supply for almost 180 years. There dependability is proven unlike the available alternatives and the money saved from not making the switch could be used to further university research or better yet, reduce extortionate tuition fees.


This is not a time fit for heroes – on fracktricide and the Battle of Balcombe

In America a man turns a tap. Water comes out; at first dull and inconspicuous. The man holds a naked flame to the torrent and instantly, this mundane domestic regularity is transformed into something surreal. The funnel of water is ignited, and the man recoils as fire materializes and expands hungrily into the air of his kitchen. The man and the tap are in Weld County, Colorado- a community of more than 260,000 people, up to 12.5% of whom are believed to be living below the poverty line. Lord Howell would likely describe such a place as “desolate” and in an environment so hostile to life’s necessities he might one day even be accurate.

The flaming faucet phenomenon is immediately familiar to residents of scribbled red zones and thumbtacked ground zeroes on maps of the US hung on the walls of rich executives. Their lives play out on the bleeding contours of frontiers pockmarked by drill rigs, where the hangover of the effort to find and exploit oil and gas infects underground aquifers they drink from, and later, the air they breathe. Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking as it’s better known and exploited for its phonological similarity to another popular f-word) promises to lead revolutions in energy prices, in the job market and in our ability to power ourselves without relying on resources from abroad. But if fracking is so much in our interest, why is the health of people in places like Weld County so stunted and enfeebled? Why don’t they look like grateful consumers, instead of bitter and prematurely ageing victims of corporate carelessness?

Across the Atlantic lies Balcombe, a village staring down the same consequences of fracking if exploratory drills taken in the past week yield potential. The human response to this fact amongst those who live there has been breath-taking: three weeks of civil disobedience that garners more support each day. If the example of Balcombe will prove to be anything significant in the years ahead, it should be that the fight against powerful interests in the energy sector was led by ordinary people, defending their right to a habitable home.                                                                                                                

Social networks abuzz with commentary on the protests have frequently generated references to the people standing against Cuadrilla as “heroes” and in this narrative it is cogent to conclude that their opponents are villains. What is disturbing about the argument that arises from this however, is that the opponents of the people of Balcombe look increasingly like their own leaders.

When George Osborne used “revolution” to describe the rise of natural gas extraction worldwide, it was with complete disregard for the traditional connotations of the word. If anything, fracking has encouraged stagnation of political credibility in the oversight of the energy sector, and looks to benefit the smallest, most undeserving pool of benefactors imaginable. Balcombe had to swallow glaring cronyism when it emerged last year their MP Francis Maude had promoted a senior figure in Cuadrilla to a government position in June 2010; and when they raised their concerns over the company operating in their hometown the government  reassured Cuadrilla that they could happily ignore the people.                                                                                                                                         We, the general public, have largely come to accept that the politicians we choose to lead us will only ever have their own self interests at heart. But when we lose sight of the protesters as ordinary people- people who are simply fighting to remind us of the irreplaceable value of clean air and water- then we lose sight of our own inalienable right to a clean environment capable of sustaining us with long, healthy lives.

For all this idealism there remains the suffocating dogma that tells us corruption, pollution and climate change are all pills we just have to swallow if we want to keep the lights on.   

But is it really naïve to demand in 2013 that we move towards methods of generating energy that are different from the kind we have depended on for the past few hundred years? Archaic, dirty methods that we are all incontrovertibly aware contribute to the heating of our world and the disruption of its climate system, the acidifying of our seas, the poisoning of our freshwater and the contaminating of our air?                                                                                                                       

It was well said by Ansel Adams, reflecting on the struggle of activists in the country where fracking was born that “it is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment”.  We know the enemy in the Battle of Balcombe, let us not forget the heroes.