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Courtesy of Audrey Mann Cronin

March 14, 2019

Climate Activist Bill McKibben on Divestment: ‘We Better Get to Work’

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Climate activism icon, leader of the fossil fuel divestment movement and founder of 350.org Bill McKibben offered his advice to Cornell students passionate about taking action against university investment in fossil fuels on Wednesday evening.

“We’re kind of having a moment around climate change. Something in the last year has begun to profoundly shift the mood,” he said in the virtual lecture. “It’s too late for Cornell to be a leader, but not [too late] to play a significant role.”

In the event hosted by the University Assembly, Climate Justice Cornell and the Cornell Environmental Collaborative, McKibben gave his remarks over video chat to students, faculty and community members regarding Cornell’s continued investment in fossil fuels.

Fossil fuel divestment proposals have been brought up in the past, most recently in 2015 when the University Assembly passed Resolution EA R3: Cornell Investment and Divestment Strategies for a Sustainable Future.

The resolution did not elicit divestment from the board, “but we remain optimistic,” said Nadia Vitek ’22, a member of Climate Justice Cornell, in an interview with The Sun prior to the event. “The pressure is definitely building.”

Student climate activists on other college campuses across the country, such as Syracuse University and University of Maryland, have been pressuring their administrations for years to divest from fossil fuels with several winning the fight in recent years, according to Hannah Brodsky ’22, who is also involved with CJC.

The Cornell board of trustees’ hesitance to drop its investments in fossil fuels is paralleled at other universities, like Middlebury College, where the cry for divestment was similarly not initially successful. However, through activism on the part of students and faculty, McKibben among them, Middlebury decided to divest its assets in the fossil fuel industry in February.

“At this point in time, we’re no longer likely going to solve climate change one solar panel at a time,” McKibben said. “Our fundamental job is to break up the political power of the fossil fuel industry, and that’s why divestment is so important.”

However, McKibben emphasized the importance of discussing what has changed since the board’s original decision, instead of chastising them for making the wrong choice.

He outlined the seven main developments that have shifted the conversation regarding fossil fuel divestment, such as the increasing economic viability of divestment — a result of the decreasing price of solar and wind energy.

Moreover, he asserted that the responsibility of combating climate change lies with institutions of higher education, who must take charge largely in light of the public’s challenges in facing a “campaign of deception” from the fossil fuel industry.

McKibben said that investment campaign successes thus far create a climate normalizing divestment, despite the long-standing roots of fossil fuel investment, and that the economic performance of these divested universities serves as an example of the economic benefits of divestment.

One of the best ways to get through to the trustees, according to McKibben, was to translate the consequences of continued fossil fuel investment into monetary loss. McKibben argues that continued investment in fossil fuels is financially unsustainable, wasting both opportunities to make other, more profitable investments and money that could have been directed to scholarships or pay for adjunct professors and research.

McKibben ended his virtual talk by emphasizing the importance that the younger generation plays in this debate.

“I’m going to be dead before the climate crisis is at its absolute worst. But you’re not going to be,” McKibben said. “My generation is one of the first generations on earth to pass on the planet in much worse shape than when we met it. So we better get to work.”

Looking ahead, McKibben stressed the importance of a strong student-faculty connection at Cornell in order to sustain the debate for divestment. He cited the fact that the administration simply needs to outlast students for their four-year-long career at the university, emphasizing the importance of faculty joining the cause.

This sentiment is shared by Prof. Caroline Levine, English literature, who said in a prior interview with The Sun that the challenge with divestment is to “keep it as a conversation that people are aware of, where people are thinking about the potential benefits and implications of it. It’s important not to forget, just because students turn over and there’s not so much historic memory.”

CJC member Zoya Mohsin ’21 had a message for Cornell students: “We’re deeply connected and dependent on these investments. And if these investments are in companies and industries that are harmful, we share some of the responsibilities of the harm caused.”