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7th March 2016

Students against fossil fuel divestment win debate

As part of JustFest 2016, the Manchester Debating Union asked the question: Should the University of Manchester divest from fossil fuels? Those anti the motion won the debate after a thought-provoking and, at times, heated debate

In the light of significant student outrage at the news that the University of Manchester was investing £40 million in fossil fuel companies, the Manchester Debating Union (MDU) hosted an event on the topic. They asked the student body whether they would want the university to divest from the oil and gas industry.

An initial straw poll showed that most present were undecided or felt they did not know enough about it to form an educated opinion. However, at the end of the debate the opposition won with a 16 per cent increase in votes  in their favour.

Speakers for the proposition were Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change and Dr Carl Death, a Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Manchester.

The opposition included Professor Johnathon Redfern and Dr Peter Backus, Chair of Petroleum Geoscience and Lecturer in Economics at University of Manchester respectively. Professor Anderson was the first to speak for the proposition, and focussed on how climate change may not seem like much of a change to the Northern Hemisphere (the primary users of fossils fuels) but to poorer countries, climate change could soon equal death.

He said: “We are more concerned about our powerful cars, our large overheated homes, our frequent flyer miles and double door refrigerators than we are about poor people in those climatically troubled parts of the world that are already struggling to eat.”

For the opposition, the first speaker was Professor Redfern, who declared that he thought “that this issue is too serious… to be hijacked by emotive words.” His argument came from a predominantly financial perspective and told the crowd that “we will have no money to tackle climate change without a stable economy” that fossil fuel giants help support.

Next up for the opposition was Dr Death, who argued that it was not about bankrupting oil and gas companies, but about the message that the university wants to send. He pointed out that “most progressive gains in world history have been achieved by social movements.”

Mr. Backus spoke last, bringing a humorous voice to the debate. He suggested that disapproving University of Manchester’s investment in fossil fuels was like “blaming Greggs because your husband is fat.” As an economist, he joked that he of course thought the solution to this problem was tax, but he also touched on the stigma that fossil fuel companies face.

This topical debate was a fringe event for JustFest 2016, the University of Manchester’s Social Justice Festival that will be taking place from Wednesday 9th March. The festival aims to encourage students to challenge today’s injustices, ranging from humanitarian relief and refugee support to mental health stigmas.

A spokesperson for the MDU pointed out that the event was important for providing a public forum for student’s voices to be heard on an issue that the University of Manchester is currently debating. The University of Manchester’s ties to the oil and gas industry have remained a highly controversial topic for several years now.

Just last year, an investigation by the Manchester Fossil Free Campaign revealed that the university invests almost £40 million in fossil fuels through pension funds and shares.

In a further surprise to activists of social responsibility at the University of Manchester, a giant of climate change campaigning, Greenpeace, found that the university has taken nearly as much money from fossil fuel companies as they invest. £28 million in funding has been received since 2010.

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