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The case for student climate activism

‘Campaigning is the antidote to fear and despair, putting hope and agency in their place’


Having taken almost £15 million from oil firms since 2017, the University of Cambridge’s response to the climate crisis has been put under the spotlight in recent years, with the pressure for the university to take action coming in large part from student activists. Years of campaigning from groups such as Cambridge Zero Carbon and Extinction Rebellion Cambridge were rewarded in 2020 by the university’s decision to drop all investment in the fossil fuel industry – a policy known as divestment.

Since then, however, the university has decided not to authorise a vote on whether to accept research funding from the fossil fuel industry, and faced accusations of “greenwashing” after renaming its BP Institute.

The Tab spoke to second-year student Sam Gee, who campaigns with Cambridge Climate Justice (formerly known as Cambridge Zero Carbon), about the student climate activism movement at the university. Along with that, Boycott Banks Destruction shared their views as a student campaign that focuses on Oxbridge’s links to banks with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Campaigning at Cambridge

The privileged position of both Cambridge University and its students makes it imperative that activists “challenge oppressive power structures” said Boycott Banks Destruction: “It is precisely because of the University’s special standing that it is our responsibility to exert influence on them as much as we can. We have already achieved many tangible goals and are optimistic that more is to come.”

Sam Gee similarly finds hope in the past successes of the movement at Cambridge: “Over a decade of campaigning for divestment brought together students, academics, other staff, and community members alike – and they won!

“I have every confidence that the university will finish the job. Just as the university concluded that [the fossil fuel industry is] totally unworthy of investment, they will see that these are also totally inappropriate partners for recruitment, and certainly should not be let anywhere near the university’s climate, environmental and energy policy research.”

A demonstration organised by CCJ in Michaelmas term. Image credits: Felix Armstrong

Activism is a unified movement

The strength of student activism lies in its multiplicity, argued Gee, as climate activism is the latest act in a long history of student movements: “From supporting anti-apartheid movements in South Africa, to divestment, to the climate strikes, there is a rich history of students organising for social change, and it’s often where campaigners-to-be build their skills and networks, which they can then take forward into becoming lifelong effective change-makers.”

The strength of student activism lies in its multiplicity, argued Gee, as climate activism is the latest act in a long history of student movements: “From supporting anti-apartheid movements in South Africa, to divestment, to the climate strikes, there is a rich history of students organising for social change, and it’s often where campaigners-to-be build their skills and networks, which they can then take forward into becoming lifelong effective change-makers.”

Gee went on to stress how different student campaigns contribute to and fuel one another, such as how “the climate strike movement in the UK upskilled a cohort of young people in organising and campaigning,” which then supported an effective “campaign against Gavin Williamson’s algorithmically-determined A-Level grades in 2020.”

A demonstrator at an XR Youth Cambridge event in Michaelmas term. Image credits: Felix Armstrong

Student activism is unique

Boycott Banks Destruction further emphasised how the facilities and expertise on offer at universities, as well as the close proximity in which students live and study, makes activism “much more effective.”

When asked why more students should get involved in climate activism, Boycott Banks Destruction highlighted the importance of taking an active stance against the climate crisis:

The world needs activists now more than ever as we fight for climate justice and an end to a climate apocalypse. There are few things that are as fulfilling as knowing that you are playing your small role in fighting for the preservation of the world as we know it. Activism comes with its ups and downs, but the rewarding moments and the people we meet make it more than worth it.”

Gee stressed the community aspect of student campaigning groups, as well as the value of maintaining agency:

“The crises our world faces are often overwhelming to think about, but for me, campaigning helps tackle that. […] Campaigning is the antidote to fear and despair, putting hope and agency in their place.”

The University of Cambridge has been contacted for comment.