Research master student Vatan Hüzeir (27) is worried about the university’s negative impact on the environment. In this letter he calls onto the Executive Board to rethink their ties with fossil fuel companies.
Dear Executive Board,
Mr. P.F.M. van der Meer Mohr, Prof. Dr. H.A.P. Pols, Drs. B.J.H. Straatman,
This year, Erasmus University Rotterdam is celebrating its centenary with the slogan ‘100 years of impact’. In many ways its previous moments of impact are remembered and shared. Increasingly, the EUR is also trying to make a positive impact on our natural environment. The aims to reduce CO2-emissions and to make use of more renewable energy sources are just two examples. These developments are good. However, as a postgraduate student and EUR-employee, I have serious concerns about the negative impact of the EUR on the environment. I would like to explain why and argue that it would be wise to divest from the fossil fuel energy industry as much as possible.
On September 27th 2013 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) presented the most comprehensive and authoritative report on global climate to date. After evaluation of thousands of scientific articles hundreds of experts assessed with near certainty that the global warming since 1950s is primarily caused by humans. This ‘anthropogenic’ contribution to the temperature increase is largely due to the fact that since the industrial revolution we are burning lots of fossil fuels and with it emitting large amounts of CO2. Eventually, every country will suffer the immediate consequences of climate change. So will the Netherlands, as global warming leads (among other things) to the melting of ice caps and rising sea levels.
In itself, this provides enough reason for any ‘socially engaged’ university like the EUR to divest from the fossil fuel energy industry. The imperative to act should increase even more since PwC consultants recently concluded that at the current rate of carbonisation, a temperature rise of 2°C will be prompted as soon as 2034 onwards – much sooner than we thought. This would increase the likelihood of triggering irreversible changes in climate systems and setting of ever more extreme catastrophes. Examples of effects of such ‘ecological tipping points’ are the unrecoverable melting of icecaps or Amazon dieback. Do we really want to pass on such a world to our children, grandchildren and all our students getting their EUR-degrees?
Divesting from fossil fuels
The EUR can address this problem by divesting from the fossil fuel energy industry. To this end, it has two opportunities. Firstly, by critically reviewing ties between the EUR and the fossil fuel energy industry and where necessary change or cancel them. Secondly, by moving pension fund ABP, which EUR staff are obligated to use to build up their pensions through, to stop investments in fossil fuel energy companies (FFEC).
To successfully divest from the fossil fuel energy industry it is necessary to systematically review its ties with the EUR in a critical way. This has never been done while the climate situation demands it. So, what relationships are there exactly? And, in light of the climate problem, is it required to change or cancel these ties?
Firstly, there are quantitative ties with the fossil fuel energy industry. Through RSM BV the EUR has had financial interests in Gasunie of €150.000,- (2010), €50.000,- (2011), €60.000,- (2012). Here the question rises if there are more quantitative relationships with FFEC. In any event, there is much to be gained by redirecting any capital flow from these companies to more climate friendly sectors.
But there are also more qualitative relations with the industry which can become debatable in light of global warming. Let’s take a look at such university relations with Royal Dutch Shell, for example. Shell is one of the corporate founders of the RSM. Shell also has a seat in its advisory board (so do FFEC like BP, AtlasInvest, and Royal Vopak). Also, the company is generously given space to proliferate itself on the campus. Posters and flyers promoting all kinds of Shell-sponsored events and programs. An elaborate mobile exhibition stand for a Shell project. By the way, Shell Public Relations does its job well every time, as one would almost forget that the company does not only contribute a lot to global warming, but that the company also contaminates the Nigerian environment through oil leakages, that it accepts the ecological consequences of exploitation of Canadian tar sands, injects chemicals in Siberian earth in exchange for shale oil, and just recently crashed one of their drilling platforms on the coast of delicate Alaska.
But our relationships with Shell go even further. A couple of days ago I came across a proudly framed document in the T-hall. It hung there for the Erasmus Recruitment Days and turned out to be a co-signed charter about the partnership between Shell and RSM. Particularly interesting was the section on the aims of a proposed ‘steering group’. One of the aims of this group was ‘[f]or Shell to potentially influence the design of the RSM curriculum and the profile of students who attend the BSc/MSc/MBA programmes’ (emphasis added). In other words, we have authorised one of the largest and most controversial FFEC to exert far reaching, on-campus influence. Is it, with the reality of global warming, really desirable that such multinationals can hijack the campus in this way?
Of course this experience raises more questions: What other arrangements are made between the EUR and FFEC? Isn’t the transition to a more climate-neutral world severely delayed if a mandate is given to program the brightest minds to think about FFEC in a certain way? Is research paid for by FFEC also ‘influenced’ in any way?
Besides critically evaluating our ties with the FFEC, the EUR can also counter climate change by persuading the ABP pension fund to stop investing in the fossil fuel energy industry wherever possible. This fund has enormous financial interests in the industry and employees of Dutch universities are obligated to build up their pensions through it. This situation means that every EUR staff member is forced to contribute to capital flow to the fossil fuel energy industry, thus perpetuating or even worsening the climate problem. I – and I think many with me – don’t quite want that!
To get an idea of the scale of such interests: As of September 30th 2013, just three days after the publication of the IPCC assessment report, the ABP had a financial interest in FFEC of around 9.2 billion euros. 9.2 billion! These are shares in, for example, Royal Dutch Shell, ExxonMobil (known here as Esso), Chevron, Total, BP, BHP Billiton, Petroleo Brasilero, Statoil, Lukoil, Peabody Energy Corp. and more companies active in very CO2-intensive, controversial and polluting projects. Besides this financial contribution to the FFEC, through their voting behaviour during shareholders’ meetings, the ABP gives such companies explicit consent to invest large sums of money in groups that work to increase public support for their greenhouse brands.
Given the climate problems we are facing, this situation is primarily objectionable on principal grounds. We simply cannot allow ourselves to become complicit in dangerous global warming. But the situation is also highly inefficient when looking at EUR’s sustainability policy, as all of its environmentally conscious efforts are offset completely through our funding of the exploration and extraction of coal, oil, and gas. Moreover, according to some it might be wise to reconsider such investments from a financial point of view. IPCC scientists (but also those involved in the Carbontracker project as well as others) point out that coal, oi
l, and gas reserves reported to be recoverable by FFEC are in fact for the most part unrecoverable if we want to limit temperature rise to 2°C. The size of this ‘carbon bubble’ is estimated to be around 500 billion euros and is sometimes considered to be a potential source for anext financial crisis.
Moment of impact
To date, it has been possible to set up university ties with FFEC in quite an unbridled way. I think the time has come to institutionalise critical evaluation of such ties. Because of global warming, now, more than ever, it has become a necessity for a ‘moment of impact’, and ‘critical thinking, spirit, innovation, and sustainability’, to speak with a centenary term and the core values of the RSM. Sites like gofossilfree.org and 350.org show that similar initiatives have been successfully carried out across the world. The San Francisco University for example has already divested from fossil fuels.With the growing list of such successes, it is increasingly clear divesting from fossil fuels is primarily a question of will.
In an interview your president said that the EUR can definitely do some ‘catching up’ with regards to social responsibility. I think divesting from fossil fuels qualitatively and quantitatively provides excellent opportunities to become a leader at it both in the Netherlands and beyond.
I look forward to your response to this letter and hope to be able to further discuss the proposals with you.
Vatan Hüzeir (27) Researchmaster-student Sociology of Culture, Media and the Arts
currently studies the public reception and problematisation of the latest IPCC report
This letter is already supported by the following EUR staff members:
Dutch Research Institute For Transitions (DRIFT)
Prof. Dr. Derk Loorbach (sustainability transitions), Prof. Dr. Jan Rotmans (transition management), Dr. Flor Avelino (politics of sustainability transitions), Rick Bosman (energy transition, geopolitics), Niki Frantzeskaki (governance of sustainability transitions), Shivant Jhagroe (politics of transitions), Chris Roorda (corporate social responsibility), Frederic Sanders (social-economic transitions), Felix Spira (acceleration of low-carbon sustainability transitions, sustainability in higher education), Julia Wittmayer (social innovation, local action for sustainability)
Erasmus School of Economics (ESE)
Dr. Karen Maas (environmental economics, strategic philanthropy), Nel Hofstra (sustainable enterprising)
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC)
Dr. James Everett Hein (social dynamics of global warming framing, corporate elites and climate change)
Erasmus School of Law (ESL)
Dr. Aloy Soppe (fiscal law, ethics, social responsibility)
Faculty of Social Sciences (FSW)
Dr. Jacko van Ast (environmental policy, regulation & urban environment), Dr. Sibout Nooteboom (complexity leadership, environmental policy evaluation)
Faculty of Philosophy (FW)
Dr. Henk Oosterling (dialectic philosophy, ecosophy)
Institute for Housing and Urban Development Studies (IHS)
Dr. Alberto Gianoli (environmental economics, climate change adaption, mitigation), Stelios Grafakos (urban sustainability, climate resilience), Marijk Huysman (urban environmental governance and management)
International Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Prof. Dr. Des Gasper (development ethics, climate change), Dr. Saturnino Borras (climate change and mitigation policies), Dr. Bram Büscher (political economy of energy, green neo-liberalism), Dr. Wendy Harcourt (gender, environment, social change), Dr. Lorenzo Pellegrini (collective action in environmental management)
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM)
Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart (cradle to cradle, upcycling) Prof. Dr. Gail Whiteman (sustainability, management, climate change), Dr. Steve Kennedy (corporate sustainability, climate change, sustainable innovation), Eva Rood (sustainable business development), Willem Ferwerda (business & ecosystems), Amanda Williams (sustainability-oriented innovation, systems thinking)
The Dutch version of this letter is published in Erasmus Magazine #13, February 27th 2014.