Provost and Acting President Michael Kotlikoff pledged that Cornell will remain committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2035 in a meeting with faculty and student proponents of prioritizing green University policy.
In the meeting with the provost, Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology, and Elizabeth Chi ’18, a member of KyotoNow, said that they considered the formation of the Senior Leaders Climate Action Group the beginning of a new era of collaboration between administrators, faculty members and students in striving toward a goal of carbon neutrality.
“[Students] have met with Kotlikoff and other administrators and there is support for stronger partnership between students and the administration on carbon neutrality,” Chi said. “[This collaboration] is a step in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.”
Kotlikoff explained that the SLCAG committee will be responsible for formulating a new plan to achieve carbon neutrality and reporting back with a recommendation for the University by Sept. 1. The new plan will seek to develop “broader and more implemental” steps toward a goal of sustainability, unlike the previous plan, which he said was heavily reliant upon geothermal energy.
“We currently have a goal that relies on a single technology. We need a broader plan,” he said. “This does not mean abandoning deep earth source heat — it means acknowledging that we don’t have a price for that technology and we won’t know until we do substantial research at substantial cost.”
While the Acting President said that he believes divestment will remain “off the table” moving forward, citing The Board of Trustee’s decision on the topic this winter, Chi and Shalloway stressed that students and faculty members remain optimistic that this decision is not final.
“If students can do anything about it, divestment won’t be off the table,” Chi said.
Kotlikoff also said that this approach to carbon neutrality is not a “marked departure” from the policy advocated by President Garrett, saying Garrett was supportive of the goal but concerned that the costs of achieving it remained ambiguous. He also voiced concerns about the “opportunity cost” of pursuing green University policies.
“We have to be responsible stewards of this institution and the academic quality of this institution. The reason I took the job as Provost was to make this place stronger academically,” he said. “We also have this goal and commitment to be a model and to be as aggressive and forward thinking as we can in one of the world’s biggest problems. But we have to balance those things.”
Kotlikoff added that if the cost of achieving carbon neutrality compromised the academic quality of Cornell, he would not consider the venture a success.
“If the cost is that in 2035 Cornell is carbon neutral but it is second rate academically, that to me is not a success because we won’t have solved the global problem — we’ll have been an example and that’s valuable — but we won’t have solved the global problem. What we will have done is damaged this institution,” he said.
Chi said she and other interested students have been brainstorming ways to incentivize the Cornell community to become more actively engaged in pursuing a carbon neutrality goal.
“I think most people in the community are actively interested in contributing themselves personally to carbon neutrality at Cornell,” she said. “If we can add an academic twist and make sure people are personally invested then we can really elevate the living laboratory to the next level.”
Kotlikoff also said administrators are exploring ways to encourage green policies, citing the construction of buildings and the promotion of research as possible areas of advancement.
“There are leaders of companies interested in thinking about how we use energy in a community like this in the most efficient way, understanding that we can use solar or wind energy, how we change people’s behavior about how they use [alternative energy,] he said. “This is really a complex data question that plays well into some of the University’s expertise.”
Kotlikoff also addressed concerns about the longevity of any formulated plan given the uncertainty in University leadership following Garrett’s death. He estimated that there will not be a new permanent president for another year, although he said there may be another acting president in the interim.
“Any change from the goal of 2035 and this plan to get there will be one that will require a substantial discussion with the Cornell community,” he said. “I think the best way to ensure that this doesn’t change is to come up with the most robust plan we can, the most achievable plan and to start implementing it.”
Kotlikoff added that he does not believe that any one individual has the potential to determine the success of the carbon neutrality goal if the community bands together collectively in working toward sustainability.
“If we as a community come up with a goal and action and achieve some momentum no one is going to want to turn this back,” he said. “I can’t imagine a University president who is not as aggressive as possible toward achieving carbon neutrality.”
Shalloway and Chi both stressed that just because the path toward carbon neutrality is not clearly delineated yet, Cornellians must be bold in adhering to this proposed goal if they hope to spark change.
“When President Kennedy said we were going to go to the moon before the end of the decade we didn’t know how to do that, no one knew how to do that, no one knew what it would cost, but he set a goal,” Shalloway said. “When you have a goal you know you can fail. It’s important to know you can fail, it’s important to be uncomfortable. We have confidence that we can do it but we have to work hard.”