According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report of 2014, unless the world changes course immediately and dramatically, the fundamental systems that support human civilisation are at risk. We can expect and are already beginning to see adverse effects on health and life, increasing regional conflicts, eroding social structures, general destabilisation and rising levels of violence.
A leaked report by Shell Oil Company observed that societies are not responding effectively to avert this impending crisis, and as a company it is planning for the consequences. It is well known that fossil fuel companies and their owners have played a major role in influencing government policies decisions, particularly in US and Australia, in preventing the required action being taken. As a consequence of their political success, it is likely that hundreds of millions, and even billions of people will die, and the Earth in future will support only a fraction of the human population that it otherwise would. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent upon public institutions, and particularly universities, to do what they can to influence events. One way they can act is to divest their investments in fossil fuel companies.
It is important to do this for a number of reasons. Effective action to prevent climate destabilisation and a runaway greenhouse effect will involve moving to non-fossil fuel energy sources, which will radically decrease the profitability and value of companies involved in exploiting fossil fuels. If effective action is blocked, there could be significant financial gains to those who have invested in these companies. It is important that public institutions are set up by an act of parliament that obliges them to serve the public good. They should not gain financially from having vested interests in the success of grossly immoral behaviour. Furthermore, they should avoid conditions where they could be corrupted further by having vested interests in outcomes contrary to the interests of humanity.
Divestment is also an important symbolic act. Symbolic acts function to anchor the ethical beliefs and behaviour of people, societies and civilisations. Their importance is often underestimated by calculating people who only think in terms of immediate practical outcomes, but there is ample evidence from the history of societies and civilisations that success is based on such symbolic acts, and when short-term calculation of effects of actions comes to dominate decision making, then societies and civilisation decay. That is, they become decadent. The essence of such symbolic actions is that they are not based on such calculation. It is possible that by divesting from fossil fuel companies, the university will avoid losses caused by governments finally responding to the threat of climate destabilisation, or as a successful public relations exercise that could elevates the status of Swinburne and thereby its profit making capacity. However, these should not be the basis of decision-making or even be considered, as to do so would weaken the symbolic significance of acting ethically.
All such considerations should be put aside. We are at a crisis point in the history of humanity and civilisation. There is only one right way to act, to divest from all shareholdings in fossil fuel companies.
Arran Gare is associate professor in environmental philosophy at Swinburne University.