October 6, 2015

GUEST ROOM | Garrett, Heed the Call for Climate Action

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By ELIZABETH CHI

At her inauguration, Cornell President Elizabeth Garrett referenced scientist and author Edwin Slosson. She said, “We expect more of Cornell. Cornell, in order to be conservative in the sense of being true to its traditions, must be radical and progressive, for that is the way it started.” Speaking before the rows of esteemed personnel seated neatly on the sun-soaked Arts Quad, President Garrett seemed both genuine and promising; she accepted the challenge to carry on Cornell’s trailblazing tradition and its mission to serve both its local and global community. However, it remains to be seen whether she will do so at this fall’s meeting of the university’s trustees, when they can potentially take a stance on fossil fuel divestment.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the scientific community have affirmed on multiple occasions that climate change — driven largely by fossil fuel emissions — is a threat to humanity. Climate change is linked to the spread of pests and diseases, poses risks to food and water security, floods coastal and island communities, damages livelihoods and economies (especially in poor communities and countries), contributes to social and political unrest and fuels the disruption of the ecosystem.

Fossil fuel divestment refers to a global movement in which individuals, corporations, institutions, municipalities, and other groups cut ties with the 200 companies that are most closely linked with coal, oil and natural gas as listed by 350.org. The campaign aims to shift the political debate around climate change by applying grassroots pressure on people in power in order to overcome the influence of the energy lobby. Divestment has proven effective in the past; for example, divestment movements across the country helped provide the necessary pressure for Congress to take action against apartheid in South Africa. In light of the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris, it is especially crucial for renowned institutions such as Cornell to divest from fossil fuels and send a strong signal to our representatives that we want to stand on the right side of history.

President Garrett has indicated opposition to fossil fuel divestment, echoing the sentiment of her predecessor that doing so would compromise the stability of the university’s endowment.  The Office of Investments has repeatedly claimed that the university earned $100 million from its holdings in fossil fuels between 2004 and 2013, but that figure does not reflect last winter’s plummeting oil stocks. Additionally, HSBC has noted that stiffer climate regulations may cause fossil fuel investment to turn into stranded assets and has offered strategies including divestment from fossil fuels to reduce the financial risks of investing in increasingly volatile stocks. Nevertheless, last year, Cornell’s trustees rejected the Student Assembly’s nearly unanimous resolution that supported permanent divestment from direct holdings in coal, even though the University had not held any for at least seven years.

Finances aside, the University has a responsibility to respond to the demands of its students. To date, every legislative body on campus — the Undergraduate and Graduate Student Assemblies, the Faculty Senate, the Employee Assembly and the University Assembly — has passed individual resolutions in support of fossil fuel divestment. The board of trustees has resisted time and time again, insisting that divesting from fossil fuels would not only hurt the University’s finances, but also initiate a slippery slope allowing special interests to use the endowment to further their own agendas. However, the precedent for divesting the endowment from inhumane and exploitative organizations has already been set at Cornell. First, in the 1980s, the Board of Trustees voted for partial divestment from companies that traded in or had operations in South Africa in response to student pressure to protest apartheid. As recently as 2013, at the urging of President Skorton, Cornell divested from oil companies conducting business in Sudan to protest human rights violations there. Therefore, the question is not whether Cornell should set an administrative precedent, but rather whether the fight against fossil fuel companies that exploit and pollute water and land resources from rural Pennsylvania to Nigeria is worthy of our attention, or whether we wish to invest in and implicitly support companies that profit from and thrive on the acceleration of arctic meltdown, sea level rise and the host of other calamities associated with climate change.

The leaders of the world will be meeting in Paris this December to make plans for how their respective nations will combat climate change and cut greenhouse gas emissions. The decision of Cornell’s Board of Trustees allows us to add our voice to the opposition to exploitative, business-as-usual practices. We, the students, expect more of Cornell because Cornell, as our new president said herself, must be radical and progressive in order to stay true to its traditions.

Elizabeth Chi is a sophomore at Cornell. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room runs periodically this semester. 

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