University investment policy challenged by week of events

Divestment Week drew to a close on Friday, leaving behind more than 2000 signatures on a petition to Vice Chancellor Chris Brink and a lively debate over the University’s future. Reflecting the universal threat that climate change poses, a broad swathe of Newcastle’s student community added their voices to a growing call for change.

FemSoc opened Monday’s discussions with a reassessment of climate change as a confluence of sex, race and class injustice. In a world where 75% of climate refugees are women, most fossil fuel companies are exclusively owned by men and women occupy less than a fifth of all government positions on the world stage, our focus on polar bears as the greatest victims of fossil fuels forgets the sacrifices half of the world’s population are currently making to stay afloat.

“Women are mostly absent from a debate that ultimately affects them” said talk leader and first-year English student Sarah O’Hare. “When they aren’t, their voices are more likely to be marginalised”.

As her partner Phoebe Howard, a history first-year, described it, “climate change is real, but it doesn’t affect us equally”.

Despite the tail-end of Hurricane Abigail threatening to overshadow it, Tuesday saw tents huddled at the foot of the Student’s Union building, each crowded with those following curiosity and shelter. Many left with white t-shirts coiled up in waterproof bags, the distinctive orange cross of the campaign still drying on them.

Wednesday brought with it a rare alignment of student politicians. In a talk that evening, Newcastle University’s Young Greens, Labour Students and Conservative Future societies came together to explain how divestment is an apolitical issue too important to get caught up in partisan point-scoring. The event exposed fertile territory for common ground on the matter of the Paris talks, with each club president acknowledging that current commitments fall dizzyingly short.

Attendee Sophie White found the debate helpful: “It was a real eye-opener. Tonight helped me to clarify my own views about divestment.”

Friday’s Divestival heralded a change in the weather along with a change in mood. The Newcastle University Food Co-op offered free nutritious and locally-sourced food for anyone engaging with the campaign, while the smell of fresh cakes and music from the Newcastle Student Radio Tent filled the air with (for the first time that week) something other than rain. For five days that were often punctuated by debates on themes of injustice, urgency and disaster, Divestival was the necessary tonic. For a broad church of Newcastle students, Divestival found a community spirit.

But questions may still linger over its long-term impact.

It was commonly asked by people who braved wind and rain to sign petitions and spray orange crosses onto t-shirts- how much is necessary to make the University to take notice? How many signatures? How many raised voices? In a campaign so often fixated by numbers, the answer was surprisingly nuanced.

“We could deliver a petition with 100 names or 10,000”, said campaign leader Rob Noyes. “What’s important is making clear this matters to us.”

Image: Mark Sleightholm

Image: Mark Sleightholm

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