Civil Contestation at Durham: Fossil Fuel Divestment, Climate Change and Being an Objective Scientist

by Mika Laiho




According to evidence from Earth scientists, climate change has occurred across several periods of history before the twenty-first century while estimates of the number of times mass extinction has occurred range from as few as five to more than twenty. Discourse about climate change is redundant to many people because physical changes to the environment have always effected the natural world. Some believing in ecological equilibrium theory predict that the environment will balance itself eventually, which is why humanity should never cease to exist or even experience chaos as a result of planetary warming. Others strongly contest these arguments, predicting that atmospheric warming is ever increasing as a result of carbon emissions so effects are expected to worsen, particularly beyond ‘tipping points’.

The problem today is different to previous geological periods of climate change, however, because for the first time in history human-induced carbon emissions continue to alter the environment at a dramatic rate of change. The phenomena of ecological tipping points have always caused alarm among scientists, which is why most global citizens have endorsed intergovernmental cooperation in order to tackle existential problems like pollution growth, resource scarcity or climate change. Scientific studies from the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, way back in the 1990s, suggested that carbon emissions from factories, transportation and increased methane emissions from melting sea ice in the polar regions were related to climate-induced crop failures, soil erosion and an increasing rate of natural disasters across the globe. Some scientists have argued that humans have altered the world to such an extent that we have now entered a new geological period called the ‘anthropocene’.

However, some of the most influential and heavily pollutant states failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol that developed from intergovernmental (COP) meetings of the 1990s because of an imbalance between competitive developed and developing countries. One success story, the European Union, committed to these targets and even raised the bar a little higher in an attempt to take a lead on carbon emissions targets and develop a competitive renewable energy sector. Since then the Paris Agreement has resulted in other states like the USA and China joining the European Union in promoting new targets, which are nowadays being undermined in principle by the late US Present Trump while signifying an historic transition towards legally binding targets for all states nonetheless.

At the same time, increased scientific awareness of a changing energy-climate change nexus in society has led to a competitive drive in green energy production as demanded by an informed global citizenship who understand the implications of governmental inertia and their continued favouritism towards the fossil fuel industry. Many of the key arguments raised by camps of climate change ‘sceptics’ or ‘advocates’ within academia have discussed whether new ways of addressing the nexus with regard to emerging socio-economic and political problems have been addressed, which has pushed the agenda further. Non-government organisation at the global and grassroots levels have harkened a new era of climate change activism, which has required a great deal of support from academics, politicians, journalists, notable personages and even mega-brands like Ben & Jerry’s (my favourite ice cream) in order to popularise scientific discourse to put pressure on governments.

Ultimately, one can nowadays determine that there is a strong movement to revoke the social licence of a powerful fossil fuel industry and to create new economic incentives to refuse the financial support of an industry that is literally fueling anthropogenic climate change. is one organisation set up with the purpose of explicitly revoking the social license of the fossil fuel industry, particularly through endorsing scientific research and producing popular documentary films like ‘Do the Math’. In the long-run, I believe that science-based activist movements like will historically become recognised for their skill with regard to using science to their advantage but in the meanwhile they need even more support from scientists themselves who are willing to participate in public and government debates. Durham is no different from everywhere else in this respect, which is why the next section of my essay will illustrate how my time as a Ustinovian has helped me realise my potential as both an academic and an activist.




Much like other forms of seemingly unchangeable political climates existing in the past, culminating in anti-Vietnam or anti-South African Apartheid global civil movements, an urgent response from global citizens has steadily relied on scientific evidence to support climate change activism. Encouraged by vibrant, information-driven NGOs, students have played come to play a huge role in society by calling on Universities to divest from fossil fuels for the sake of raising awareness of a destructive energy-climate change nexus. The debate at Durham University has been no different, with students, academics and local activists pushing for transparency and openness on the part of the University to contribute to collective efforts to tip the balance away from fossil fuel use.

My role in this movement has been to use my status as a postgraduate student and member of the research staff community to facilitate dialogue about the Divestment movement and to gauge opinions from people about what this might mean for Durham University. Of course, this has not been easy while studying a full-time PhD programme, teaching in my department and participating in the GCP or Durham Energy Institute’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Energy programme (CDT). However, by maintaining some ties to organisations like People and Planet that operate as part of the Durham Students Union (DSU), some of my free time has been applied to the organisation of local events in cooperation with the University, Transition Durham, which is Durham’s most active NGO tackling community-related problems resulting from fossil fuel dependency, and other national or international NGOs an institutions.

Most importantly, as soon as I arrived in Durham I realised that it was a city populated by intelligent students and politically aware locals with a strong sense of community — many of whom would likely be interested in open dialogue about the energy-climate change debate. In the beginning, some of the key activities I became involved with ranged from open mic events at Empty Shop to Fossil Free petitions online and on campus. The common understanding among students who most vehemently opposed Durham University’s lack of engagement with fossil fuel divestment from the beginning was that the success of other Universities in the UK and elsewhere could be replicated in Durham, and overall most academics who I have spoken with have supported Divestment in principle but would appreciate more dialogue. Nowadays, pressure from a stronger representation of Durham’s student body has led to slow and steady changes within the University administration, with the recent introduction of a committee of senior academics interviewing members of staff about how and why Divestment at Durham should happen.

To say that my academic studies at Durham were enriched by community engagement and activism would be an understatement. Regardless of my research focusing on the energy-climate change nexus in the Arctic region, which is by far an entirely different world to Durham’s situation in the northern hemisphere, I have come to realise that my time spent researching global fossil fuel consumption habits will always bare significance for my local community, wherever this may be. Nowadays, in my final months of study at Durham, I have become more interested in the heritage of local mining communities and have been fortunate to participate in local events co-organised by the Durham Energy Institute as part of my summer internship.

For an early career scientist, it has always been clear to me that I must be very careful in terms of voicing my political opinions, which might clash with a majority of opinions of colleagues or future employers who perceive their academic credibility to be staunchly professional and scientifically objective. But this has not stopped me from trying to be diplomatic. For instance, my main aim has been to build informal networks between myself and individual academics, activists or NGOs in order to understand common interests between these groups. My will for change has been stimulated by my personal experience with each group and to understand the social complexities of the energy-climate change nexus. I feel that the Global Citizenship Programme deserves a special thank-you here, because my role as a GCP scholar allowed me to draw national and international climate change activists to Durham to discuss their views publicly with other academic staff members.

In summary, when I think about my role as a socially-aware individual in an academic bubble like Durham, I honestly feel like a post-modern version of a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character: striving for excellence in the field of academia, inspiring my students to think critically in the classroom, and keeping up with the pace of climate change activism. Yet this caricature barely scratches the surface of my point. On the one hand, my engagement has caused alarm to academics who are far too insecure about their academic credibility or too hard pressed with work to properly debate as I have done. On the other hand, many local activists have wondered why I am not more openly involved, why I publish blogs under a pseudonym sometimes, and why I continue to stick up for defamed ‘deniers’ who attempt to undermine the divestment movement? The reason for this is simple: I am a scientist and therefore must behave professionally and objectively.




This essay is just like a lot of the pieces to be published in The Ustinovian under its Critical Series — it seems to be my attempt to answer anyone’s past, present or future querying about my role as an academic and climate change activist. Whether or not you feel that I have been too vague about my opinions to Divest from fossil fuels, this essay serves as an apology for not being very clear about this — yes, I support Divestment from the fossil fuels industry; mostly because of the need to pressure the government and major investors to move towards more environmentally sustainable methods of energy production; but also because of several crimes committed by fossil fuel and mining companies who, over the years, have fostered a great distrust in an industry that has maximised their profit while committing crimes against humanity in local communities while rarely become accountable for them.

The larger existential questions related to life beyond fossil fuels has also not been developed much in this essay, which I sorely apologise for because I do not have enough space to write about this. More importantly, the purpose of this essay has been to demonstrate how my research has coexisted with experiences of Durham as an environment that is clearly connected to the wider global citizenry. I would therefore like to thank Durham University, Durham Energy Institute, Durham Students Union and Ustinov College for allowing me to  to engage with thousands of others like me over the years spent in Durham, which has further enriched my life by making a positive contribution to society in the future. I originally intended to write about the pitfalls of academia in a competitive world of professional scientism but ended up describing just how wrong it is to even suggest that academia belongs in an ivory tower.

In answer to my own puzzlement, regarding whether we can truly rely on scientists to deliver the necessary tools too information for politicised decisions to bring about positive change, I think that my essay makes it very clear: science is not for science’s sake, it does not just serve to push scientific breakthroughs, it weights several arguments in favour of societal change. At the current rate of political change, global citizens may easily determine that humankind is intent on heading for impending doom and that we are all taking the planet with us. Why, then, can we not collectively challenge those holding the playing cards of political change? Why can we not take a stand and force governments and other influential actors to make change happen before it’s too late? And by ‘We’ I mean myself included, despite being an ‘objective scientist.’ By becoming more of a ‘public intellectual,’ scientists can and do make a real difference in society by challenging controversial norms.

Knowledge is Power, fundamentally, and my role will always be to support an informed discussion in the public about the energy-climate change nexus. My apologies to those with better knowledge about energy or climate science for not including more information. The essay goes no further than recognising that anthropogenic climate change is real, that energy-society relations are currently determined by fossil fuel combustion, but it unfortunately does not go into specific details about climate science — for that I suggest you consult Ustinov’s Principal, Professor Glenn McGregor, who is a climatologist. Overall, this essay has been undoubtedly focused on power relations, the crux of my research, through which I articulated politics relating to fossil fuel divestment at Durham. However, a great deal of inspiration comes from all of those who have taken part in curating an engaging Divestment debate at Durham, who I will not name aloud, but who I owe a lot to, especially for the content of this essay.

Photo Credit: Mika Laiho

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