December 3, 2013

LETTER: Faculty-led divestment from fossil fuels

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To the Editor:

Inspired by the Student Assembly’s recent resolution urging Cornell to divest from fossil fuel companies, we and 27 faculty Senators have submitted a resolution entitled Cornell Investment and Divestment Strategies for a Sustainable Future to the Faculty Senate for the Dec. 11 meeting.  This resolution includes goals for Cornell to reach climate neutrality by 2035 and to phase in divestment by then.  We focus on the 200 companies holding the largest fossil fuel reserves. These reserves already comprise three to five times more than the total amount of fossil fuels that can be burned before exceeding the 2°C rise in mean global temperature that scientists and governments have agreed is the threshold for dangerous climate change. Nonetheless, these companies are financially committed to burning these reserves and continuing to explore for even more.

In spite of repeated warnings from the scientific community and the obvious extreme weather effects of fossil fuel-induced climate change that we are already beginning to witness, adequate action by our government in the face of predictable catastrophe seems a distant dream. At the recent global conference on climate change in Warsaw, the United States and other large emitting nations made no new commitments to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and the prospects for essential commitments in 2015 look bleak. Given the dire predictions from the scientific community, the actions being taken are too little and soon will become too late. Either from denial, despair or the hope that someone else will take care of it, the highly profitable fossil fuel business continues with little change. But this is a knowledge-based issue, and that is our business. It is also our responsibility. Universities in general, and Cornell in particular, must be the leaders of last resort in this eleventh hour.

If we speak loudly as representatives of a great university to say that the fossil fuel business as usual must stop, we will be heard. Leadership from Cornell will help spur action by our peer institutions, and our concerted voices will help to wake our society from its sleepwalk and raise a grassroots demand for meaningful governmental and industrial action. Our scientific papers, public presentations, and advice to policymakers have not spoken loudly enough. For better or worse, we need to “put our money where our mouth is.” And we can do this in two ways: First, by becoming carbon neutral and, second, by simultaneously stopping our investment in the ongoing extraction of fossil fuels. Although some financial sacrifice in pursuit of our institutional responsibility would be justified, we have conducted the analyses and determined that the proposed actions will not only have a negligible impact on growth of the University’s endowment, they may significantly reduce overall risk in the University’s investment portfolio.

Our students have led the way. It is time for the faculty to step up to the plate. Our goal is to make a strong public statement that will draw attention to the need for society to transition from fossil fuels to truly clean sources of energy that are fossil carbon neutral. We recognize that the University’s divestment actions can result in only a relatively small direct financial impact on these companies. However, the moral courage demonstrated first by Cornell, and then by its peer institutions, will have a galvanizing effect on the movement within this country and internationally.  There has never been a more important time in its history for Cornell to demonstrate its leadership.

Prof. Brian Chabot, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Prof. Stephen Ellner, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Prof. Charles Greene, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Prof. Anthony Ingraffea, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Prof. Linda Nicholson, Molecular Biology and Genetics

Prof. Robert Oswald, Molecular Medicine

Prof. David Shalloway, Molecular Biology and Genetics

Prof. Robert Strichartz,  Mathematics