March 22, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Don’t Let Paris be Another Kyoto, Divest from Fossil Fuels!

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On March 21, the administration confirmed that it is working to ensure that Cornell will be “successful in achieving [its] carbon neutrality target of 2035” by tasking the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group with compiling a “menu of options and associated costs” by Sept. 1. This commitment was “spurred by strong direction from Cornell’s shared governance groups,” likely referring to discussions among the Student Assembly, Faculty Senate and University Assembly, as well as to the unanimously passed Student Assembly Resolution 39: Committing to Carbon Neutrality by 2035. A revitalized dedication to carbon neutrality is significant, but it would be a mistake to believe that Cornell is now doing enough to combat climate change, to act as if the fight has been won. (It hasn’t).

To put it plainly, it is high-time that Cornell’s Board of Trustees acknowledge that divestment and carbon neutrality are two sides of the same coin. According to the UN, the world will face ‘severe, pervasive and irreversible’ impacts if we reach the projected tipping point of an increase of  2°C above pre-industrial levels in 35 years. That’s to say nothing of the current consequences of the climate crisis; for instance, estimates that nearly 160 million people were displaced by climate change-intensified weather events from 2008 to 2014. Cornell’s transition to campus carbon neutrality will reduce our particular institution’s contribution to the climate crisis, but it will leave the power of the five trillion dollar fossil fuel mega-industry intact.

When weighing possible institutional actions against climate change, the Board of Trustees should carefully consider the actions of the fossil fuel firms in which it invests. For decades, energy firms systematically buried evidence linking fossil fuel combustion to climate catastrophe. Exxon Mobil, Shell, Imperial Oil and others accounted for impending climate change in the designs of their extractive infrastructure, while also executing inordinately well-funded misinformation campaigns to ensure that governments would turn a blind eye. The world took the bait, and is now chronically dependent on an energy source that fuels humanitarian and climate disaster.

In addition to fueling climate warming and rising sea levels, many of these firms have executed renewable energy activists, polluted waterways, and destroyed Indigenous livelihoods. The world’s poorest populations are those most at risk for exploitation by Big Oil, whose stock prices shareholders would like to see rise. The logic of capitalism unfortunately dictates that fossil fuel investors — including Cornell — have a financial interest in the escalation of ecological and social devastation.

However, in response to calls to withdraw our holdings (divesting) from fossil fuel companies, the ex-chair of the Office of Investments has asserted that the endowment “must not be regarded primarily as an instrument of political or social power,” suggesting that advancing sustainability is outside of its scope. Ironically, that that same office has deflected calls for divestment and touted its commitment to sustainability by noting it has invested more than $90 million in endowment funds to renewable energy! In essence, it has contradicted its own supposed investment guidelines. We could take this time to dispel a few other misconceptions about divestment — that it violates fiduciary responsibility (if we can’t safely redirect $24 million of a $6.3 billion endowment, then we need a better investment committee), that as stakeholders we can leverage fossil fuel companies into pursuing more sustainable options (hundreds have — in unison — tried, failed and forsaken that path; it’s a lost cause), the infamous “slippery slope” argument (divestment precedents have been set, twice, at Cornell, and fossil fuel divestment has unprecedented shared governance support).

Rebuttals aside, divestment is an incredibly powerful tool for social change in the modern economy. Aided by social media, divestment announcements from a few prominent participants such as the University of California school system, the World Council of Churches, British Medical Association, Danish Pension Fund (and hopefully the Ivy League in the near future) can send ripples through the fabric of public discourse. Stock prices are sensitive to public opinion, and would respond to bold divestment moves by Cornell’s Board of Trustees and peer institutions that will inevitably follow our example. At a recent panel on Cornell’s campus, NYS Assemblyman Steve Englebright called on universities to divest because “ . . . if the universities can [divest from fossil fuels], it will lead the way, then the state pension funds will do it, then the investment houses themselves will work themselves out of depending upon fossil fuel based investments.” Moreover, attendees to the Paris Climate Talks pointed to the $3.4 trillion worth of endowments that had been committed to divestment from fossil fuels as proof that businesses, universities, organizations, and municipalities are ready to cut ties with dirty energy. Even in 2014, Desmond Tutu strongly encouraged applying apartheid-divestment tactics to tackling climate change, arguing that “we can encourage more of our universities and municipalities and cultural institutions to cut their ties to the fossil-fuel industry…It makes no sense to invest in companies that undermine our future. To serve as custodians of creation is not an empty title; it requires that we act, and with all the urgency this dire situation demands.”

The Kyoto Protocol was adopted in 1997, the year in which most Cornell freshmen were born. The adults of that generation failed to take the necessary leadership to ensure our well-being; but today, with the Paris Climate Talks behind us, we are no longer voiceless infants. We are calling on you, our Board of Trustees, to make the right decision this time around. We are the first generation to be affected by climate change and the last to be able to prevent its most damaging consequences, and we refuse to condemn ourselves and future generations to suffer the worst effects of climate change. In conjunction with other sustainability initiatives, including carbon neutrality, divestment will hasten the transition to a fossil fuel-free New York, which (for all intents and purposes) necessarily precedes a fossil-free United States that can lead the world to a fossil-free future. Members of the Board of Trustees: you have before you an opportunity to influence the course of human history, to encourage New York, the United States, the nations of the world to take bold, united action to combat the common foe of anthropogenic climate change.

Christopher Hanna and Elizabeth Chi are sophomores at Cornell. Comments may be sent to Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

  • Avrum

    Comments on “carbon neutrality” and fossil-fuel divestments carry no water unless the commentator has shown his/her willingness to do without any device, mechanism or system powered by such fuels. Short of that, my Cornell friends, all your mouthings are BS.

    • Caroline

      The economy used to be entirely based on slavery and we were able to figure out, 150+ years ago, that this was morally wrong even while being deeply entrenched in that economy. Consider getting an education while at Cornell.

    • Michael

      We live in a society which requires at least some use of fossil fuel energy. The electricity supplied to the lights in public spaces we study, eat, and hang out in is frequently created by fossil fuels. So to a certain extent, what your suggesting is impossible in the status quo. But more than that, personal boycott and green consumption just isn’t the point. If you read the article, you would realize that fossil fuel divestment is about changing the context entirely, and making green energy accessible to all while fighting climate change and preventing the systematic destruction of the planet. Who cares if you forgo the use of a cell phone or drive an electric car while the world burns? That just isn’t the point.

      • Avrum

        There’s an old saying that applies to anyone who appears to pontificate: “You talk the talk, but you don’t walk the walk.” Divestment is nothing but talk.

    • Avrum

      The cry for “divestment” may work in academia which is insulated from the real world, but outside those halls lies reality.

  • Elizabeth

    Avrum, re: your original comment–much of carbon neutrality and fossil fuel divestment is centered on transitioning to renewable energy and sustainable development, so I don’t quite see your point. We are calling for a future in which all of our “devices, mechanisms, and systems” are powered by renewable energy, instead of fossil fuels. Your “argument” is simply a reiteration of the problem that we face.

    Moreover, one person sacrificing personal comforts and modern technology is entirely insufficient and useless in the grand scheme of things because unfortunately, there are seven billion people on this planet, and most, if not all, have to live their lives in a climate conscious manner (now or at some point in the near future) if we want to ensure that we don’t surpass the global warming tipping point. Therefore, “walking the walk,” as you put it, requires that we help make sure that other businesses, governments, and civilians make decisions that will minimize their greenhouse gas emissions. THAT, my friend, is the hard part. Our solution is divestment, in addition to education efforts, technology, waste reduction, policy changes, renewable energy investment, grassroots pressure, and a host of other initiatives combined. Divestment has worked in “reality,” (ex. California state pension fund, Rockefeller Brothers fund, the Guardian, other groups mentioned in the op-ed, and hundreds of others that aren’t) because “talk” is not only preferable to silence, but also extremely powerful when it garners enough attention. For instance, the hundreds of divestment commitments have prompted Bank of America, JPMorgan, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo have all pledged to stop or scale back on financing coal projects.