When ANU Gains from Climate Change, We All Lose

Bella Himmelreich is a member of Fossil Free ANU.

The chairman of Santos, an oil and fracking company, recently said that their business works within a warming model of four degrees Celsius. Despite internationally agreed efforts to stop at two degrees, and despite the alarming effects we are seeing already, Santos will continue to profit from producing fossil fuels until the world is four degrees hotter.

For the average person, this announcement from Santos is kind of unbelievable. But we, as ANU students, have a particular interest in this news because our university currently invests in Santos. And for me, someone who is slogging away at the Fossil Free ANU campaign to get full divestment from fossil fuels, this news about Santos hurts – a lot.

In 2014, ANU divested from seven fossil fuel companies, including Santos, on ethical grounds. In mid-2015, ANU outsourced the management of their investment holding to a third party and reinvested in Santos without disclosing it. Without telling students or staff for over a year, they reinvested in a four-degrees-Celsius future.

What does the world look like at four degrees?

The world at that temperature is a drastically different climate system to the one which we are currently experiencing. It is the same degree of difference between the last Ice Age and the Holocene period, which we have been in for 11,700 years – until now, that is.

Emeritus professor at the ANU, Will Steffen, said at four degrees ‘you’d be locking in tens of metres of rising sea levels, and you can say goodbye to world cities.’ Entire Pacific islands would disappear, and people would be displaced in the hundreds of millions, in a refugee crisis that no one is equipped to handle. This is a scary dystopian future that will become a reality by 2100 if we don’t act.

Even saying ‘four degrees’ is misleading because the impacts locally are actually much larger. For the Arctic and western and southern Africa, forecasts for warming are closer to ten degrees. This environmental change would also trigger drastic social change, from food insecurity to health epidemics and political instability.

It is double the ‘safe’ limit agreed to internationally at the COP21 Paris talks in 2016, which drew criticism for not being strict enough.

And for Santos, this is business as usual.

So why aren’t we up in arms about it?

Maybe it’s because speaking about climate change in terms of degrees is fairly opaque. Maybe it’s because we’re not actually surprised that a company with the highest disregard for the environment would make such a statement.

Personally, I think it’s probably because ‘climate change’ is such a huge concept, we struggle to think about it without wanting to implode. But the reality is that a four-degree rise absolutely changes everything, and it’s hard to know where to even begin if we want to tackle it.

Often people’s response to a worsening climate emergency is to impose stricter limits on themselves – recycle, plant trees, participate in Earth Hour. These kinds of suggestions, though well intentioned, often do more harm than good. They position climate change as solely an environmental issue, without considering the huge social and political upheaval it causes.

It also puts the blame on individuals, rather than the system, for causing climate change. But, the fact is it’s structural problems causing this rapidly changing climate, and the best way to tackle it is to take the fight to companies like Santos, to act as a collective rather than as individuals and to demand climate justice.

Fossil fuel companies like Santos have been given a social licence to act without consequence. They received $27 billion in subsidies in the 2017 budget. Universities, city councils and businesses invest in them and profit from their actions. To take them on, we have to be willing to face up to the fact that climate change is fundamentally an issue of power.

Santos is getting away with this because institutions that have the power to condemn them are not being made accountable. Universities remain complicit in their silence, and refusing to divest makes these fossil fuel companies even more powerful.

What can we do about it?

At ANU, we’re taking a stand. We are an institution that delivers essential climate research, that educates young people and that wants to be a leader in Australia’s moral debates.

All of this is undermined by ANU’s investment in fossil fuels and is threatened further by ANU’s underhanded reinvestment in Santos. We’re already coasting on borrowed time. We need to show our VC and council members that students and staff at this university no longer accept the continued support of an industry whose operations are killing our reef, and committing us to a future of extreme weather events and insecurity.

Now, more than ever, we need to mobilise. What you can do to tell ANU and Santos that you care about the state of the world is to act locally, act collectively and act fast.

So join us. Join Fossil Free ANU, the ANU Environment Collective, AYCC (Australian Youth Climate Coalition, ASEN (Australian Student Environment Network). Join any (or all) of them. Bring your time and your skills and tell ANU we’re not going to stand for this.