Tagged Environment

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Oxford dons call on uni to dump fossil fuels

Over 60 Oxford academics have signed an open letter to the University, urging it to divest from fossil fuel companies. 

The letter, accompanied by a petition signed by over 1,300 students and alumni, claimed that the University “has a responsibility to show leadership in tackling one of the greatest challenges we as a society currently face”. 

Currently, the University invests around five per cent of its £3.3bn endowment fund in fossil fuel companies, defined as the “top 200 companies involved in the exploration, ownership or extraction of fossil fuels.” 

The University said it would “consider a range of stakeholders” before decisions were made.

The campaign is asking the University to avoid investing in these companies, citing recent research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which claims that  “60-80% of carbon reserves must stay in the ground” if dangerous climate change is to be avoided.

Professor Henry Shue – a signatory of the letter – emphasised the importance of climate change, describing it as “a threat to the security of the residences of hundreds of millions of people who currently live in coastal cities”.

The release of the open letter came after a protest in central Oxford on Saturday, attended by over 150 students and residents. Ellen Gibson, a student who helped organise the campaign, described divestment as an “opportunity” for the University. 

“It’s an opportunity to support its own academics’ vital research, to show moral and intellectual leadership, and to ensure its students of today and tomorrow can enjoy the same planet and society in which we currently thrive.”

A motion of support was also passed at OUSU Council last January, urging the University to “put safeguards in place to ensure the University does not indirectly invest in fossil fuel companies.” Twenty-five common rooms across 18 colleges have also passed motions in support of the campaign. 

The University is currently undergoing a consultation on the issue, with a report likely to be published in early July. 

A spokesperson commented that the issue was “complex and multifaceted”. 

They told the BBC that participants needed to gather “evidence and opinions, and time for reflection and informed debate”.

“Fossil fuel divestment is a broad issue involving many different university departments and activities, and that any engagement on this issue will need to consider a range of stakeholders across the whole of the university,” it added.

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Conservatives: climate change out in the cold

In May 2010 David Cameron said that the coalition would aim to be the “greenest government ever”. Since then the government has had a somewhat mixed record on the environment, culminating in Cameron last year reportedly saying that he wants to get rid of all the “green crap”, according to an unnamed senior Tory who went on to say: “We used to say: ‘Vote blue, go green’, now it’s: ‘Vote blue, get real’.” According to polling data released by The Carbon Brief last year, 69 per cent of the public consider scientists trustworthy sources on information about climate change, whereas only 7 per cent thought the same for politicians. The coalition has a long way to go to convince the public that it is suitable to lead the country in what has been called the greatest challenge of our generation.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that it’s 95 per cent confident that the global warming seen over the last 60 years is anthropogenic and, not surprisingly, 97 per cent of climate experts agree with this.
Despite this several senior conservatives are climate change skeptics, most notably Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Critics of Owen Paterson are yet to be convinced that his history degree from Cambridge and experience as the managing director of a leather company before moving into politics puts him in the right position to understand the technical 2,000 page IPCC report. Indeed, he spectacularly proved that he has missed the point when, in response to the report, he said: “I think we should just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries. Remember that for humans, the biggest cause of death is cold in winter, far bigger than heat in summer.”

Paterson is reported to have had very few substantial meetings with his chief scientific advisor Professor Ian Boyd, or with the Department for Energy and Climate Change’s chief scientific adviser, Professor David McKay. A lack of trust for politicians hardly seems surprising if senior members of government aren’t willing to turn to science for the facts.

The government has come under a lot of pressure in recent weeks over the flooding in many parts of the country, with Professor Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics Group at the University, recently criticising the government for a lack of funding for research into the link between flooding in the UK and climate change, calling it a ‘scandal’ that the public weren’t given clear answers. Perhaps if the funds had been in place to convincingly show a link between climate change and abnormal weather the flooding could have been used to rally support for meaningful action on climate change. Instead, the government is spending its time blaming advice from the Environment Agency, infighting, and belatedly making funds available for future flood defences.

However, there is hope for the government. The main theme of the Oxford Climate Forum two weeks before was that climate change is both our responsibility and an opportunity. Responses to climate change can be a great source of economic growth; already new industries are emerging around sustainability and cleaner energy. Individuals and businesses alike can have an impact in tackling climate change and improving our world. That is the message that the government needs to be putting out.

Real solutions to the threat of climate change aren’t going to happen without substantive social and political transformation. Let’s hope this development doesn’t come too late.

Photo/Roger Askew

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Port Meadow critics granted hearing

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Following a sustained campaign, opponents of controversial Port Meadow accommodation have been given a court date to protest construction of “disastrous” blocks.

The hearing, which will take place on October 23 at the High Court in Birmingham, is described as “a permission hearing to enable the court to decide whether the procedural challenges raised by CPRE amount to something arguable”.

It came about after several months of campaigning through an online petition, which gained over 3000 signatures, threats of legal action, and multiple Freedom of Information requests.

However, even with an encouraging verdict from the judge, Mr Justice Hickinbottom, a resolution could still be months away.

Paul Goffin, the University’s estates director, believes that a reduction in size for each building could cost between £10 and £20 million, and would be an “inappropriate use of charitable funds”.

This development comes in response to significant resistance to the scheme among locals, who opposed Oxford City Council’s decision to grant the University permission to build blocks of student housing along the scenic stretch.

Critics of the project claim that the permission was granted based on incomplete information regarding the environmental and cultural impact of the plans for 412 units of accommodation on Roger Dudman Way in the form of several multi-storey blocks.

Early last year, claims that the buildings would obscure views of the dreaming spires of Oxford and break up the landscape were supported by a report from Nick Worlledge, leader of the city council’s heritage team. The report expressed concern for the preservation of Oxford’s “fragile” skyline, the view of which would be obstructed were the plans to go ahead.

Critics also claimed that “spires, towers and domes… could be easily dominated or obscured, compromising their pre-eminence” and “there is no justification for this harm”.

Shortly after these criticisms were made, the University submitted a revised bid for planning permission that reduced the height of the buildings by a 1.2 metres.

Following this, the council granted permission for the construction of these revised plans.

However, after it was revealed that the committee that ruled on the revised project was never presented with the information of the report, many were quick to criticize the University.

Amongst them was Helen Marshall, director of the Campaign to Protect Rural England Oxfordshire. She said that the University was trying to have it both ways in the debate by claiming that the reduction in height was both not significant enough to warrant a reevaluation of the plans by the heritage team, yet significant enough to resolve any issues highlighted by the report.

Elise Benjamin, a member of the committee who abstained from the vote, claimed that she felt there was insufficient information and that “the seriousness of the heritage officer’s views did not come to councilors. You do not get such strongly worded opinion from officers very often”.

John Tanner, board member for a Cleaner, Greener Oxford City, city councilor for Littlemore and county councilor for Isis, commented that “nothing was hidden from councilors when [the committee] decided last year to approve new student flats in Roger Dudman Way” in a letter he penned to the Oxford Times in April.

The letter stated that there were at least seven paragraphs regarding the implications of the plans and that decisions were made with “eyes open”.

Prince Charles calls on religion to save environment

Prince Charles argued that the “environmental crisis” facing the world was due to “a deep, inner crisis of the soul” in his speech on Wednesday at the Sheldonian Theatre, entitled “Islam and the Environment”.

The prince, who received a standing ovation following his speech, argued that an attitude of unlimited consumption towards the world’s resources was the result of a “mechanistic and reductionist approach to our scientific understanding of the world around us”.  He suggested that this led to “the imperative that [science’s] findings must be employed to maximum, financial effect”.

Citing a United Nations study of 2008 which estimated that the global economy incurs an annual loss of between 2 and 4.5 trillion dollars each year as a result of the destruction of natural systems, the prince also noted that a consumptive attitude towards the world was responsible for significant financial loss.

The solution, he suggested, lay in “the recovery of the soul to the mainstream of our thinking… Only sacred traditions have the capacity to help this happen”.

Hertford second-year Alice Thornton said, “It sounds like an argument for justifying religion rather than justifying environmentalism. If your aim is to do as much environmental good as possible you need to appeal to as many people as possible.

“Linking environmentalism to spirituality could be inadvisable and limits a campaign on an issue which affects everyone to specific channels, potentially alienating people.”

The Prince went on to call on people from “each of the sacred traditions” to consider questions such as birth control, arguing that “one of the biggest cases of high birth rates remains cultural”.  He added: “It is surely time to ask if we can come to a view that balances the traditional attitude to the sacred nature of life… with, on the other hand, those teachings… that urge humankind to keep within the limits of Nature’s benevolence.”

Prince Charles also spoke in favour of women’s education in Bangladesh as a factor which controlled the birth rate, and issued a challenge “beyond this audience today” to “mobilise Islamic scholars… to identify the general ideas, the teachings and the practical techniques within the tradition which encourage us to work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.”

The prince acknowledged the impact of his last speech on Islam in Muslim countries at the beginning of his lecture, saying “I am still reminded of what I said, particularly when I travel in the Islamic world.” A second-year undergraduate commented “His whole speech was basically trying to prove to Muslims how green living was something totally in sync with the teachings of the Quran and therefore urging those countries to infuse their spirituality into their lifestyle to combat a global threat.”

VC honours student civic campaigners

Niel Bowerman is well-known in environmental circles for his tireless campaigning. Now, along with six other charitably-minded students, he has had his achievements recognised by an award from the Vice-Chancellor.

A spokesperson for Oxford Hub, the student-run charity organization, said the inaugural Vice-Chancellor’s Civic Awards aim to highlight “exceptional individual achievement and contribution to volunteering in the community and the wider world”.

While in his final year of his Physics degree, Bowerman co-founded and former the climate policy analysis group Climatico, named as one of the most influential websites on climate policy by Social Media Labs.

Along with numerous other achievements, he has given speeches on climate change at institutions such as the World Bank and the European Parliament.

Bowerman hopes the award will inspire others to follow his lead. “There are hundreds of students across Oxford giving their time to the community and the wider world, and I hope this award will fuel this hub of activity,” he said.

Although the award was not an end in itself, Bowerman was pleased to have been honoured.

“Campaigning gives me such a buzz when I realise what a difference a small group of motivated people can make,” he said.

Rachel Dedman from St John’s College and Suzanne Sheehy from Lady Margaret Hall were also among those to have their work acknowledged.

Dedman, who was President of RAG in 2009/10 and raised £45,000 for charity this year, said: “Simple recognition that voluntary work with Jacari, fundraising with RAG and raiding for Helen and Douglas House are fun, worthwhile, and socially important activities would increase the participation, support and scope of these projects.”

Sheehy, who created a science outreach program for schools, said she hoped the award would “encourage students to use their own unique set of skills and experiences to start their own initiatives”.

A spokesperson for Oxford Hub said the idea for the awards had been around for some time.

“Oxford Hub first proposed the idea to the University around twelve months ago, and we have been working with them since to develop the Awards,” she said.

A second-year undergraduate said that the awards seemed to fill a gap. “For sports and other achievements in the university you get a blue and that’s seen and quite widely recognised… there’s a lot of prestige attached to that and there’s been no equivalent in the charitable ethical field,” he said.

Bowerman echoed this sentiment.

“Athletes get blues, musicians get scholarships, and I’m glad that people trying to make a difference are now being recognised too.”

The awards will be presented at the Rhodes House lunch after the honorary degree ceremony on 23rd June.

Squatting for real

I have a confession to make. Despite the veneer of environmental concern and despite the affected counterculture pose I have cultivated over the last few years of Co-op shopping, free-range quail egg relishing, and organic salmon-mousse-blini nibbling Epicureanism, I’m not actually all that green.

As things fall out, viz. expire, it transpires that there are people out there who regularly and viscerally undermine my self-righteous foodsourcing primacy. There are but few reading this esteemed publication who will ever delve into the transgressively moral realm of skipping, but, for the sake of journalism, I herewith present the fruits of my recent dumpster-hopping  gourmandise.

I have another confession to make. I myself have never eaten from a skip. Proceeding with less art and more substance, I will begin by recounting my first contact with a skipper, whereupon I will digress into some interesting thoughts on the political and social implications of this lifestyle.

Last September, I arrived in London hungry and alone, with nothing but the promise of crashing at my mate Nick’s in SE1. A shower and a shave later, we hit the street with the intention of hurting people. Or fighting injustice at the very least. We were joined by a friend of Nick’s, Marco Ferducci, who spelled his name “F for freedom”.

A free-spirited third year at the South Bank University, Marco identifies as “broadly Leninist”, and has never lived in student accommodation. Arriving from Milan in 2007, Marco was instantly attracted to the adventurous life of squatting and joined a commune of likeminded individuals that occupied an abandoned house which “no one could be bothered renovating”. From the sight of it, neither could its new ‘tenants’. Marco was quick to explain that his comrades tended to come and go in six-month stints, making him feel “a bit like the institution itself”.

But institution is something the gang had little time for—except where covertly destabilizing it was concerned. Nocturnally navigating the dangerous back alleys of the metropolis on a rickety DIY contraption Marco had assembled out of scrap pieces at the stolen bicycle market off Brick Lane, I began to contemplate the nexus of commodity, frisson, and political insurrection at the heart of much nonconformist activity.

Might not such thrill-seeking conduct be conceptualized as merely another facet of the selfish capitalist ethos it allegedly deflates? How was this any better than the parade of boho chic yuppies one might find in the tapas bars of my native Kreuzberg, or the kaffir scarves and Che Guevara tees one unfailingly encounters at a Magdalen summer barbeque, quietly proclaiming the victory of capitalism over counterculture iconism? [Future employers: I’m massively into capitalism.]

Abruptly torn out of my pedestrian reverie by a near collision with the Clapham omnibus, I discovered that we had reached the evening’s destination: the skips behind an M&S petrol station. Destroying any notions of romance I might have had about bin-probing, Marco rolled up his sleeves and dove in, unceremoniously lobbing sundry plastic-wrapped food items at his new accomplices.

With a wary eye for tramps, rats, and the police, I nevertheless found time to interrogate Marco on his methodology and motivation. Adventure, he sternly declared, had long since been relegated to the proverbial trashcan of his soul—this was war, and bloody, routine trench warfare at that. Paying £1 for an individually wrapped aubergine at Morrisons, he observed, “is shit … although if it was really nice I would pay for it.” His preference, incidentally, lay with Waitrose, although for vegetables and fruit there was no place like the New Covent Garden Market between 1 and 6 am.

From folksy pixie actions, via the suffragette movement of the early 1900s to present day guerrilla gardening, what social theorists call ‘direct action’ has always played an acceptable and shaping role in British culture. PMs have been quick to realize and misappropriate this Guy Fawkesian streak. Most recently, David Cameron has found himself in the paradoxical position of advocating compulsory grassroots involvement in his Big Society, and, for several days in the beginning of May, Gordon Brown tried his hand at squatting.

One more confession. For all my cynicism about the attention-seeking nature and hidden hierarchies of activist organizations and about the ease corporate identities have at exploiting politically correct messages for commercial gain—consider Cadbury Dairy Milk’s condescending claim that “we love Ghanaian farmers”—there is something inherently heartening about proactive individuals like Marco.

There are certain moral reservations to be had about the antidemocratic side of direct action, and I have aesthetic misgivings about some small-scale insurrections. I will frown at tasteless graffiti but buy the collector’s edition of Banksy’s latest. You won’t find me eating from a bin, but I will certainly hold your coat for you while you do it.

Call it revolution redux, but I’m sticking with quail eggs.

The Oxford Student

One Step Ahead Since 1991