Divest Our Pensions

Opinion article


Pension fund ABP should stop investing in fossil fuel giants like Shell and ExxonMobil, says PhD researcher Sarah Thin, on behalf of Fossil Free Maastricht, in this opinion article. She asks UM staff to speak up.

Calling all staff members: do you know where your pension is invested? Do you know what kinds of companies your money supports? I didn’t either, until recently.

As it turns out, a large proportion of all UM staff pensions is being directly invested (by ABP pension fund) in fossil fuel giants like Shell and ExxonMobil. In total, over €10.9 billion worth of ABP-managed pensions is being channeled into the destructive and exploitative fossil fuel industry.

Most of us are unaware that our pensions are being used in this way. We were never consulted, nor given opportunity to comment. Without our knowledge or consent, the money that is supposed to be for our future is financing the very industry that is destroying that future.

But some of us are beginning to stand up and speak out. We don’t want our money to be used in this way. And why not?

The first and most obvious reason is the destructive effect these companies have on the environment. Fossil fuels are the driving force behind the emissions currently propelling us at break-neck speed towards catastrophic climate change.

Maastricht University’s main purpose, and our purpose as educators, is to prepare young people for their future. Yet at the same time our pensions are being used, often against our will, to finance and facilitate the destruction of that future. As Dr van Gelder, assistant professor at the Faculty for Health and Medical Sciences, asks: ‘Hoe kan ik van mijn pensioen genieten als mijn geld de aarde doet opbranden?’ How can I enjoy my pension when my money is burning up the planet?

The environmental impact is not the only concern. Many of these companies have been implicated in massive human rights violations. In a recent report, Amnesty International concluded that Shell had been complicit in numerous serious human rights violations in Ogoniland, Nigeria, including the summary execution of numerous environmental activists.

Sarah McGibbon, a researcher and tutor at the Faculty of Law, explains the deep hypocrisy at play. ‘Climate change presents one of the greatest challenges to human rights,’ explains Sarah. ‘It is totally unacceptable to me that my pension, earned through human rights research, is used to support companies with appalling human rights records and to actively strengthen the fossil fuel industry.’

Professor John Parkinson from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences was similarly ‘dismayed’ to discover how his pension is being used. ‘We as academics are constantly calling attention to issues of climate change, of injustice in countries where oil extraction is rife and human rights records are poor, where the rule of law is suspended in favour of extractive industries. If we’re going to call these things out credibly, we can’t at the same time be individually profiting from that very activity.’

When we invest in these companies, not only do we support them financially, we also create for them a veneer of social acceptability. We give them a social license to continue as they are. The divestment movement is about withdrawing this money and this support. It’s about destroying that social license. Our silence is what gives these companies power. They can only do what they do because we let them.

If you, like me – like us – refuse to have your pension used in this way, then join us in speaking up. Write to ABP and tell them how you feel. Demand that they stop using your pension to support firms like Shell and ExxonMobil. Fossil Free Maastricht have a draft letter that you can sign, and will even organize postage. Get in touch. Take a stand. Make your voice heard.

Some problems will not be solved by sticking plasters. Climate change is one of these. No amount of recycling and turning the lights off is going to save us when our institutions and financial systems are so closely tied to fossil fuels. But we can break down these systems; cut the ties with this destructive industry. We still have time to make a difference – but we need to act, and we need to act now.

Sarah Thin, PhD Researcher and Tutor, Faculty of Law

This article came about with research support by Paul Denfield and Indra Gesink. If you would like to get involved or find out more, just email fossilfreemaastricht@gmail.com or search ‘Fossil Free Maastricht’ on Facebook or Twitter.

Divest Our Pensions
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