Harry Dang / Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell students advocated for fossil fuel divestment at a rally on Friday.

March 24, 2019

Climate Justice Cornell Demands Fossil Fuel Divestment During Rally

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Despite chilling winds and drizzling rain, dozens of students clad in orange gathered on Ho Plaza Friday afternoon to rally for the University’s divestment from fossil fuel.

“We will not rest ‘till you divest,” they chanted, waving signs and cheering. “Hey, ho, fossil fuels have got to go!”

The rally was organized and led by Climate Justice Cornell with two major goals in mind: raising awareness on campus about fossil fuel divestment and attracting attention from the Board of Trustees — who met on Friday afternoon during the rally — according to Cassidy Graham ’22, CJC community retention chair.

Divesting from fossil fuels entails the removal of investments from corporations in the fossil fuel industry and instead choosing other sectors to invest in. The movement to divest from fossil fuels for environmental, financial and ethical reasons has been an increasingly prominent issue at universities across the country, according to rally leader Nadia Vitek ’22.

“The endowment comes from our tuition,” Graham told The Sun. “Our money is going towards an industry that is causing climate change. There are so many negative impacts.”

The rally kicked off with students congregating at noon outside Willard Straight Hall. They donned bright orange clothing, chanted rally cries and urged passerby students to sign a divestment petition that CJC addressed to the Board of Trustees.

Cornell Prof. Caroline Levine speaks at the rally on Friday.

Harry Dang / Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell Prof. Caroline Levine speaks at the rally on Friday.

“I get my trustees and other administrators don’t want to rock the boat. I’m with them in trying to preserve this amazing university,” said Prof. Caroline Levine, English, in a speech addressing the rally.

“Cornell demands that every one one of us conducts that pursuit of truth with integrity,” Levine said. “The fossil fuel industry did the exact opposite. The fossil fuel industry deliberately sowed a campaign of lies.”

According to Levine, fossil fuel corporations have researched and known about the effects of extracting fossil fuels on the climate since 1978. However, the corporations “hid the evidence” and “sowed a deliberate campaign of deception” about the negative impacts.

“Cornell’s sacred mission, the pursuit of truth, is in contradiction with the fossil fuel companies,” she said.

Yana Kalmyka ’21 urged ralliers to consider the socioeconomic side of clean energy activism, noting that it’s important to bring together labor organizers and climate activists as some families prioritize “putting food on the table” and how experiences differ for working class individuals.

“Ignoring the struggles of workers has allowed big corporations to pit our groups against each other,” Kalmyka said. “We have to make sure that as we move towards clean energy, all of our communities are feeling the same benefits,”

According to Hanna Soros ’21, Cornell should divest for financial benefits — universities who have divested already have experienced better financial returns on their investments overall, she said.

“The fossil fuel industry is not known for its good returns, let’s just say,” Soros said at the rally. “Cornell says that the purpose of their endowment is to maximize returns. By divesting, we could help them maximize those returns.”

The rally ended with a march from Ho Plaza to Statler Hotel, where the Board of Trustees were holding their meeting. At 12:45 p.m., Board of Trustees Chairman Robert Harrison ’76 walked out of the building to be greeted by Vitek, who handed him a stack of over 1,000 petition signatures gathered throughout the past week.

Harrison addressed the crowd briefly, expressing gratitude for their activism and said the request for divestment will be taken “very seriously.”

“We created a set of principles by which we would consider any request to divest from anything. And there have been many different kinds of requests, from private prisons to gun and ammunition manufacturers,” he said. “I know these various requests to consider divestment … have been taken very seriously for as long as I’ve been involved, and we will take this very seriously as well.”

The Board of Trustees voted in January 2016 against fossil fuel divestment. Joanne DeStefano, Cornell’s chief financial officer, said at the time that the University would only divest to a corporation under “extraordinary circumstances” that “violate the University’s most deeply held values.”

Despite hurdles ahead, Vitek remains hopeful about the future of divestment.

“I think that they [Cornell] are going to divest eventually,” she said. “I think most institutions will divest at some point — it’s just a matter of when. I’m optimistic, personally.”