Open Letter to Staff – A Call to Ethical Investment at UoS

Dear Staff and PG Researchers,

We are ‘Invest Positive UoS’ – a student led group asking the University of Southampton to commit to socially and environmentally responsible investment. Please read this message and find out why. Thank you!

There is now an overwhelming scientific consensus on both the threat posed by global climate change and the significant, driving role played by human activities in this process. The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas powered the industrialisation and advancement of our society but it is clear that our exploitation of these resources must now begin to come to an end. If we continue with business as usual we will be responsible for potentially catastrophic and irreversible climate change with implications for food security, human displacement and habitat and biodiversity loss.

Universities play a key role in the research that enables us to understand these risks and in developing the technologies that will help us to prevent and mitigate their impact. As such they also have a responsibility to take a proactive role in the transition to a sustainable, low carbon future.  It is essential that universities have transparent, socially responsible investment (SRI) strategies that are consistent with their research and sustainability objectives. Several universities in the UK have recently demonstrated their commitment to reducing global carbon emissions by pledging to restructure their financial endowments to exclude some or all fossil fuel companies. These include the Universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Oxford; fellow Russell Group members. Prominent commitments have also been made by Norway’s sovereign wealth fund and insurance giant AXA.

Ethical investment is not just about the money. The fossil fuel industry already holds far more reserves than can ever safely be burnt yet spends billions every year exploring for more in ever harsher locations. These companies are essentially betting against robust international action to avoid the worst effects of climate change (by restricting warming to below 2˚C) since such action would render these assets valueless. Public commitments to socially responsible investment are not intended or able to bankrupt these companies or lead to the obviously impractical immediate cessation of global fossil fuel use. Rather they serve to withdraw moral and academic cover from a fundamentally unethical business model and instead create space and public support for world leaders to act. Ethical financial strategies also free up university funds to invest positively; including in the clean energy technologies that will power our future. Ahead of vital international climate talks in Paris this December the need for unambiguous academic support for low carbon energy could not be greater.

This is an excellent time for the University to commit to socially responsible investment. From a recent freedom of information request:

FOI request 10621: “I have been given to understand that the fund in which the University had its endowment investment has been closed, so – with the exception of 4628 Royal Dutch Shell shares donated to the University and held to fund an endowment – all the University’s endowment capital is held as cash on bank deposit while a replacement fund for investment is found.”

These are difficult issues and we recognise that, while all fossil fuels are ultimately unsustainable and should not remain a long term feature of the University’s endowments, some are more ethically complex than others. We are therefore proposing that the University make a positive first step by pledging that the capital awaiting reinvestment will not be placed in any stocks or funds that include companies engaged in exploiting the most polluting and environmentally dangerous fossil fuel resources; namely coal, tar sands and Arctic drilling. We would also hope for a SRI strategy to exclude the arms industry or tobacco companies. Such a commitment would demonstrate that the University’s financial decision making is not distinct from its stated ambition, “to be recognised as the global leader in sustainability in the Higher Education sector”.

We would like to reassure you that we intend a positive and engaging campaign and will neither enter into nor condone violence, vandalism or abusive behaviour either at Southampton or elsewhere. We want to see a widespread conversation started among students, academics and other employees on the need for the University to publically uphold the highest standards of ethics and consistency in its investment strategy. This is a young campaign whose ideas will continue to develop. We appreciate that people may have other thoughts as to what does or does not constitute an ethical investment beyond fossil fuels and these should also be discussed. Please engage your colleagues with these issues and help us by disseminating this email and telling decision makers that you want ethical investment (the office of Sarah Pook, University Director of Finance may be reached at J.Shaw@southampton.ac.uk). This is the only unsolicited message we will be sending so please email us your ideas and let us know if you’d like to be kept updated. You can find us on Facebook, Twitter (@InvestPosUoS) and our blog. Please use your voice to help build the future that the students you support deserve.

Yours sincerely,

Invest Positive UoS

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