Blog | Bristol University should actively encourage climate strikers in order to keep its word

Lowri Lewis, XR Bristol Newsletter Editor and Bristol University student, writes about the University’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis, and presses the Uni to allow students to climate strike without impacting their degrees. This blog was originally published in Epigram.

The University of Bristol made headlines last year when it became the first UK University to declare a climate emergency. But is it doing everything in its power to ensure that these weren’t just empty words?

Looking at the Sustainability Plan, you would certainly think so. Following this plan will put the Uni well on its way to achieving its goal of becoming a zero carbon institution by 2030.

However, responding to the climate crisis is about more than simply improving the sustainability of the University itself. Of course, that’s an admirable step in the right direction. But when the UK government is set to miss its own goal of net zero carbon by 2050, it’s clear there’s more that could be done.

Allowing people to take part in climate strikes and protests is an important part of any organisation’s commitment to combat the climate emergency, since we know that they’re effective in holding other organisations accountable for their environmentally unfriendly actions.

Responding to the climate crisis is about more than simply improving the sustainability of the University itself.

In some cases, protests can even convince them to cancel such action – Bristol councillors’ rejection of the Bristol Airport expansion earlier this year can attest to that.

So why not allow students at Bristol University to take part? It could be established in the Student Agreement, for example, that attending a climate protest is a valid reason to miss out on ‘educational activities’.

The University went so far as to invite staff to leave work for the Global Climate Strike last year, so it doesn’t seem like this would be something that’s entirely unrealistic. Unfortunately, students have never received such an invitation.

In fact, we can be penalised for attending climate protests instead of ‘educational activities’. Even if you email your faculty, there’s no guarantee that it’ll be one which gives students the go-ahead. For something as important as this, there is no reason why all students – irrespective of their faculty – shouldn’t be allowed to attend.

Universities should actively encourage students to climate strike
Photo credit: Ruth Davey

Thankfully, the University has made it clear that they’re willing to change. In July 2019, the University of Bristol was working with ExxonMobil, a company in the top five of the globe’s worst polluters.

However, by October 2019, Bristol University’s academics were condemning that same business as part of an international report on their decades-long climate misinformation campaign. Considering the Uni’s recent success in divesting completely from fossil fuel companies, it seems unlikely they would want to associate with this business again.

They have shown they’re prepared to make significant changes in response to the climate emergency, and have set a positive example for other UK Universities along the way. But the ripple effect is not something the University can rely on as an effective way to encourage other institutions to change.

Even if it were, the climate emergency is a global issue and, since it is being repeatedly neglected, will require a global response.

Allowing students to attend climate protests would not only escalate the pressure on other institutions to stop being environmentally unfriendly, but it might even result in an increase in the number willing to match Bristol University’s efforts to become environmentally sustainable.

Protest makes real change happen, and students will likely have the opportunity to protest from the very beginning of the next academic year. The next Rebellion  is due to begin in Bristol on the 28th of August, and there is currently no set end-date.

As a result, students are soon going to have to make the choice whether to prioritise the future of their career, or the future of the planet. But there’s no need for these priorities to be at odds with one another.

We’re studying for degrees at the University of Bristol in an effort to improve our futures. Thanks to the climate crisis, those futures are looking pretty bleak. Let us do what we can to change that.