Why does the ANU want to wreck our future?

When you invest in an industry, you want that industry to go well. You want it to grow and make big profits. So why on this threatened earth does ANU invest in fossil fuels?

Ongoing expansion in coal, oil and gas will tank our planet within decades, putting us beyond what the UN calls ‘dangerous’ and possibly irreversible disruption before current students have retired. Never mind the horrors we will inflict on the global poor and generations still to come. ANU students are the “future generations” who will bear the brunt of the storms we are letting the fossil fuel companies unleash.

Does ANU really treasure the short-sighted profits more than long-term wellbeing of its students? Is it so worried about industry and government blowback that it will ignore the evidence that climate leadership makes good financial sense? When will ANU proudly defend its responsibility to protect our future?

These are the questions now facing the ANU Council, our top decision-making body. After a year of building power, the nation-leading student campaign for a Fossil Free ANU has put the fossil fuel issue squarely on the Council’s agenda. Already backed by over 1000 students, staff and alumni, the campaign has drawn national and international attention, and its pressure is starting to work.

The campaign was even invited to put our case directly to the Council members at the recent meeting. This was a significant step: Council meetings have been without public observers for years, much less student presentations. But then, it was hard to ignore us. We were greeting the Council members on their way in with newspapers bearing the latest of a long string of headlines about dubious university investment behaviour.

Council should now realise this campaign is not going to go away. The calls for moral leadership will only get stronger. The ANU campaign is only one of hundreds escalating around the world and around Australia, with new divestment commitments around the world every other week.

How long can ANU hold out against the inevitable? Delay will only damage our reputation as a serious, forward thinking, global university. But imagine the positive story in showing some courage and taking leadership. Imagine the positive media attention, the place in the history books, the story they could tell alumni when it asks them (asks us) for donations!

We find out if ANU is ready later this year, when it puts into practice its new “Socially Responsible Investment Policy”. Announced in November last year, the policy says in conspicuously general terms that ANU must avoid investments that cause “substantial social injury”.

As ANU’s own climate experts will explain, there are few greater causes of social injury than fossil fuels. Our climate is already seriously disrupted from fossil fuel emissions, and much more is damage locked in. We have a chance to stop things from spiralling out of control, through a rapid transition to renewables. There will be costs, but with renewables becoming rapidly cheaper, the costs are far less than many expected, and far smaller than the cost of climate change.

But the fossil fuel industries would have us crash society rather than pay the modest insurance premium for some halfway rational policy. They know action to prevent climate change would cause trillions in assets to be stranded. So they pollute our politics to protect their profits. Worldwide, fossil fuel companies spend hundreds of millions every year on lobbying, advertising and so-called ‘research’ to delay the day of reckoning we start forcing them to leave their assets in the ground.

In Australia, fierce rent-seeking around carbon pricing, including from many of ANU’s investments, lead to what Ross Garnaut called one of the worst policy processes in Australian history. Many of the same companies later finessed the same strategies to defeat the mining tax. A $25 million advertising campaign allowed them to avoid paying tens of billions in tax, probably the best investment they’d ever made. In doing so they deprived us, the owners of the resources they exploit, of a long-term public good.

Meanwhile in Norway – a country with the population of Sydney — has used a rational tax system to turn its oil revenue into a $800 billion, 1% slice of all shares globally. Their sovereign wealth fund is now considering fossil fuel divestment and increasing its funding for renewables.

But the damage to our climate and to our democracy is just start. These industries also pose serious threats to water, health and agriculture. One top-tier US study found the health and agriculture costs inflicted by their coal industry, especially from toxic coal dust, was between 1 and 5 times the value of the industry itself.

Coal seam gas has its own significant problems. Santos, the fracker ANU secretly invested in when it publicly pulled out of another, boasts a long stream of toxic spills, including poisoning an aquifer with over 20 times the safe level of uranium.

Of course, divesting from fossil fuels wont hurt the companies directly, but that misses the point.  As history shows us, divesting is a powerful way to generate stigma around damaging industries, retracting their social license and compelling government action, and the fossil free movement is the fastest growing divestment campaign ever.

ANU already forbids funding from or investments in tobacco. It recognises the damage tobacco does to our health and the corrupting influence it has had on health policy. Yet ANU still invests in companies that fight for their right to cause catastrophic climate change, the biggest health issue we have ever seen.

ANU has also taken multi-million dollar donations from BHP and Rio Tinto. Both big miners, through the Minerals Council, seem hell bent on convincing Australians climate disruption is a foregone conclusion. BHP recently back flipped on its support for carbon pricing.

If we can’t rely on ANU to stand up to these dangerous special interests and protect our future from “substantial social injury”, what hope have we got? In 40 years time, when you look back on your time at ANU, will you see an institution proud and ready to face the fierce urgency of our moment in history? Or will you see a world unhinged, spiralling into catastrophe, because 40 years ago those who could take a stand kept wringing their hands and looked away?