May 1, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR : Keeping Activism Close to Home

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To the editor:

In Michael Johns ’20’s May 1 column, he suggests that Cornell’s “globalist activist community,” specifically the fossil fuel divestment and BDS-inspired movement, has taken a myopic viewpoint that leads them — or, us, members of Climate Justice Cornell, in this case — to lose sight of true global justice by focusing solely on the issues at hand on campus.

There is a common notion that some organizers uphold: “Do the work where you’re at.” While we’re at Cornell, this means that we, the students, can address the issues we see in the way that this institution is run. Here at Cornell, we have the power to petition the University — through literal petitioning, letter writing, rallies and the like — and we may even receive some sort of response. While the chairman of the Board of Trustees or the president of the University may reply to our emails, it’s fair to say that a Cornell student group’s request for Chinese coal plants to be shut down would be swept aside. Furthermore, as people who are not direct stakeholders to China’s energy production, it’s not our place to make suggestions — not to mention the lack of expertise of a Cornell student group in the inner workings of the Chinese energy economy and grid. At best, student organizations could spread some sort of awareness, but how much impact can that catalyze from abroad?

Furthermore, we should not invalidate the efforts of campus groups on the basis that they are not addressing every single issue related to their goals. The fossil fuel divestment and BDS-inspired campaigns have mobilized and impassioned large groups of students on campus. Given this impetus, campus divestment movements create a platform for students to affect real change, during a brief window in our lives where we have the opportunity. Rather than shutting down those groups because they aren’t simultaneously working on other issues, we should be empowering others to create solutions alongside the existing groups.

We are not saying we should ignore or disregard China’s intranational and global impacts. However, just because one nation is “the world’s most egregious environmental offender,” it does not mean we must put all of our efforts towards that nation’s issues, especially if it is out of our reach as residents of the United States. The U.S. may not emit as much as China as a whole, but we emit considerably more than China per capita. In addition, we cannot point the finger of blame solely at China when we are the greatest consumers of the commodities produced by their climate-damaging industrial processes. On a historical basis, the United States has admitted far more carbon dioxide than China has. Admonishing China for an offense the U.S. is also guilty of is inherently hypocritical and morally questionable, especially if that admonishment comes from a group of students at an American university who are benefiting from the development and wealth created by past U.S. industrial emissions. Criticizing a country for industrializing and building their economy just as the U.S. has in the past is amiss, and sounds quite a lot like imperialist dictation.

Regardless of the statistics, we do not need to make this into a competition of who is the worst offender. Objectively, both China and the U.S. are heavily involved in global climate change, so a systemic change in either would make a significant global difference. As residents of the U.S., we can use our power as residents to encourage this nation to lead by example. Fixating on China is irrelevant and tangential, simply an excuse to decry divestment movements.

Our political institutions are heavily biased toward incremental change. Individuals don’t have the power to immediately make huge reforms on a global, national or even university-wide scale. History has proven repeatedly that the best way to effect large-scale change is through grassroots, local organization.

We are doing our best to organize a campaign on an issue we are highly passionate about. If Johns want to see more representation of China’s major contribution to global emissions, we at CJC are always open to new ideas or projects.

Cassidy Graham ’22

Evelyn Kennedy Jaffe ’22

Katie Sims ’20

Nadia Vitek ’22