April 25, 2016

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Yale divests, and Cornell fights a rising tide

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To the Editor:

On April 12, Yale announced that it has begun the partial divestment of its endowment from fossil fuels, citing carbon taxes and other regulations that would imperil the profitability of such investments. However, neither Yale nor Cornell has yet acknowledged the ethical issues surrounding fossil fuel investments — the mounting criminal investigations, the human rights abuses, the millions of climate refugees, the droughts and storms striking our own country. But at the very least, Yale is responding to market pressures and making welcomed decisions about its endowment accordingly.

Cornell’s Office of Investments, on the other hand, appears to be in hopeless denial about the negative economic ramifications of its business-as-usual approach to energy investments. By sweeping under the rug concerns about the inevitable implosion of the “carbon bubble,” our investment office blindly holds on to a falling regime. Their true motivations are unclear, but many of the trustees’ personal entanglements with fossil fuel companies may play a role in our University’s unfathomable hard-line opposition to divestment.

In 2013, then-Chief Investment Officer A.J. Edwards ignored a study compiled by Cornell faculty members that detailed the financial implications of divestment and warned against investing in fossil fuel stocks whose values were inflated by unburnable carbon reserves, or stranded assets. Since then, oil and coal prices have tanked. When the carbon bubble bursts in earnest, our University cannot claim that it was not forewarned. Our trustees and Office of Investments are simply fighting a rising tide towards a fossil fuel-free world.

In the past, some trustees have suggested that concerned shareholders ought to maintain financial ties with fossil fuel companies in order to generate internal pressure on the industry to adopt more ethical practices. History has proven the futility of such strategies, but nevertheless, the Board of Trustees has vetoed divestment resolutions by all five shared governance bodies.

The trustees’ weak arguments echo Ronald Reagan’s contemptible opposition to Apartheid divestment, the successful movement to end white supremacy in South Africa. Within a decade, South African Apartheid disinvestment campaigns spread from universities on the West Coast to the global community at large. Slowly but surely, Apartheid began to collapse; but justice was not achieved without resistance from those who held power. Reagan maintained close diplomatic ties with the Apartheid regime and went so far as to veto comprehensive anti-Apartheid legislation backed by many members of his own party. Like Cornell’s Board of Trustees, he positioned himself squarely on the wrong side of history.

In light of the Paris Accords and global grassroots action, a chain reaction towards a fossil fuel-free world is materializing — Yale’s announcement assures us of this. However, even if Cornell pledged tomorrow to divest from fossil fuels, it wouldn’t have a secure claim to the coveted crown of climate leadership. It would be able, however, to unclench its grasp on the shameful era of fossil fuels and help forge a future where renewable energy is the norm. We believe the question now is not if Cornell will divest, but whether Cornell will be one of the first Ivies to divest, or one of the last.

Christopher Hanna ’18

Elizabeth Chi ’18

Clay Davis ’18