November 2, 2015

FACULTY VIEWPOINT | Shared Governance Calls for Fossil-Fuel Divestment

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In 2013, the Student Assembly passed a resolution by a ten-to-one margin asking for fossil-fuel divestment — asking Cornell to take climate action leadership and assert its moral integrity by divesting from the fossil fuels that are destroying our planet.   It has since passed two more resolutions. In addition, every other campus constituency, as represented by every other shared governance group, has joined them by overwhelmingly passing divestment resolutions. This unanimity is unprecedented in Cornell’s history. If shared governance is to have real meaning, the administration must respect this unique, united decision.

The scientific consensus is unequivocal — burning fossil fuels is causing climate change. But for three decades, fossil-fuel companies have concealed their own research confirming this, have continued to sow doubt and have actively opposed constructive policy changes. We must stand up for honest science by divesting from those who are undermining it.

Climate change means extreme weather events, pandemic disease, damaged agriculture and economies, water insecurity, hunger, global instability, climate refugees and resource wars.  Our planet is now its hottest in millennia.  We are on track to exceed the safe maximum temperature by the time our Cornell freshmen reach middle age.  These changes are irreversible on the human time-scale and will spiral out of control if we continue business as usual.  The Pope has asked everyone to “… discover what each of us can do about it.”  So, what can we do?

Cornell took important steps when it accelerated our climate neutrality target date to 2035 and committed to sustainable design at the Tech Campus. But we must match technological leadership with ethical leadership by  divesting from fossil-fuels. Divestment has been effective in the past, from South Africa to our divestment from oil companies operating in the Sudan, and it can have a tremendous impact on public perception and political will.  

This is a key moment. The world’s political leaders will gather in December with the objective of developing a binding climate agreement from all nations. And the issue will gain focus in our upcoming presidential elections. Institutions with assets totaling $2.6 trillion have already committed to fossil-fuel divestment, most in the last year. With our responsibility for scientific integrity and the stewardship of future generations, universities have a key role to play by divesting. By doing so we will make our stand for science clear.

But we can never lead on climate change as long as we insist on profit regardless of environmental and social consequence. In any case, it’s likely that fossil-fuel divestment will earn, not cost, us money. Divestment ten years ago would have earned Cornell $47 million. And the current divestment targets comprise only one-half of one percent of the endowment; far less than the 14 percent that Cornell divested from South Africa.

The resolutions call for gradual divestment over 20 years, in synchrony with our Climate Action Plan progression to carbon neutrality.  By that time the targeted companies will have lost even more value since most of their fossil-fuel assets must never be burned if the planet is to remain livable.   By not divesting we are making a cynical bet that they will perform better 20 years from now than they have in the past decade.


Moreover, surveys show that prospective students and their parents care about the future of their environment and “green action.” A public stance for climate action will raise our stature, and hence our ability to attract the best students, faculty and staff.  Combining it with our Climate Action Plan and green Tech Campus will make a significant ethical stand. But our Ivy League peers are eventually going to divest, and this opportunity to lead won’t last long.  Indeed, it will require courage for Cornell to stand out from the pack.  But, living up to our progressive tradition will bring rewards beyond fulfilling our duty.   

Climate change is the most difficult challenge humanity has ever faced because much of what it means in human suffering won’t be apparent until it’s too late.  That has made it too easy to deny the implications of the science, whether for financial gain or because they are so difficult to face. Public education and outreach is our essential, critical job, and divestment is the best way to do it.  
Each shared governance assembly has asked for divestment.  Whether by action or inaction, Cornell is taking a stand, determining our legacy. Cornell is one of the most prestigious universities in the world; our actions set an example for others to follow. Twenty years from now, when climate change is really hurting, we will be asked what we did when we had the chance. We have the power to do something important right now. I hope that Cornell will be able to answer, “We led on climate action. We did what was right.”

David Shalloway is a professor in the dept. of molecular biology and genetics. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Faculty Viewpoint appears periodically this semester.