I left Brooklyn for Ithaca to begin my first year at Cornell in August 2001, three weeks before the 9/11 attacks. I was terrified from afar as New York City entered a state of fear from which it has yet to fully emerge. Three weeks ago, with Hurricane Sandy, New York faced its most significant disruption since 9/11, plunging many New Yorkers back into shock. This time, high winds and an unprecedented storm surge wrought the destruction, but Sandy was no more natural a disaster than what brought down the World Trade Center.
I was very lucky on my uptown Manhattan hilltop. But around the region, my aunts, uncles and colleagues all lost power. My Long Island grandparents watched the floodwaters rise into their house; my parents drove out to rescue them and their cat. My downtown law office was closed for a week due to the power outage. Just a few blocks away, all the businesses on Water Street at the edge of the Financial District remained shuttered when I walked by more than two weeks later. Subway service is still abnormal, and I’m still riding through silt and around a downed tree on the bike path I take to work.
On November 16, I attended the New York City stop on 350.org’s Do the Math Tour. Writer-activists Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein recounted three numbers: the 2009 commitment made in Copenhagen by nation-states including the United States and China to keep the climate from warming more than two degrees; the gigatons of additional carbon the atmosphere can absorb before it will hit that mark; and the fact that proven fossil fuel reserves, if burned, would add five times as much carbon to the atmosphere as it can handle without warming more than two degrees. In other words, to remain profitable, the fossil fuel industry would blow us all right past the two degree mark, without even discovering any additional reserves, an unlikely scenario given the billions pumped into exploration.
When I was at Cornell, I got to know a corner of campus called Redbud Woods, which is now the University Avenue parking lot. From sophomore to senior year, I worked alongside hundreds of students, faculty, staff and other Ithacans to stop the lot and save the woods. Early in the campaign, I boasted to the press that we would win resoundingly and bring on “the Waterloo of parking lots,” an end to the waste and despoliation of green space for car storage. It was not to be. Despite local government backing, Student Assembly support, nonviolent direct action, over a hundred arrests, and countless public demonstrations of love for the woods and outrage at the prospect of yet more asphalt where trees and grass once grew, we lost. As a member of Cornell’s governing Board of Trustees warned me then, the money had already been allocated as part of the overall West Campus upgrade. The lot was a fait accompli before I even heard of it.
As ever, ecological destruction requires financing. As an institutional investor, with nearly $6 billion to its name, Cornell is one hefty financier, responsible for where the money lands, where it grows. Investing in fossil fuels, whatever the short-term upside for the University, actively advances planetary catastrophe. Moreover, just as the fight over Redbud Woods cost Cornell in years of litigation, police overtime, community benefits and local ire, Cornell will pay for its fossil fuel investments over and over. On Halloween, a day after Sandy, President Skorton emailed alumni that Cornell facilities in New York City were experiencing power outages and had suffered damage. Especially now, when Cornell is making a massive new investment on vulnerable Roosevelt Island, investing in fossil fuels seriously undermines the University’s educational mission. The Tech Campus renderings are gorgeous. It would be a real shame if the site were submerged before they were realized.
On campus, KyotoNOW demands that Cornell match its commitment to carbon neutrality with divestment from fossil fuel companies. KyotoNOW’s 2001 sit-in was pivotal in winning the neutrality pledge, and emboldened the campaign to save Redbud Woods. As McKibben warns, there may be yet more arrests before divestment is won. He would like to see the elder citizens, particularly tenured faculty members, handcuffed first. And as an alumnus, I pledge that I will divest in Cornell until Cornell divests in global warming. I urge my fellow alumni to follow suit. This is too important an issue to defer to the old saw that we had better donate for the sake of our rank. A drop in the rankings is a drop in the bucket when rising seas engulf our cities.
President Skorton, Chair Harrison and Trustees, the fight to stop climate change is your fight. If we little people could solve the problem by cutting the carbon out of our lives, we would do it. We have no stake in a warmed globe; quite the contrary. But as institutional investors, you are among the privileged few, able to transform the policy dialogue and deny the fossil fuel industry its requisite capital. Think of your fiduciary responsibility to keep the University’s physical plant operational. Think too of what you owe your family and community members, who have placed such awesome trust in you. And think fast.
Danny Pearlstein graduated from the College of Art, Architecture and Planning in 2005. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.