After seven years of student activism to encourage the Board of Trustees to divest from fossil fuels, Climate Justice Cornell is escalating the fight by filing a complaint to New York Attorney General Letitia James to initiate an investigation into Cornell University’s continued investment in fossil fuels.
In the complaint, the CJC wrote that “Cornell’s investments in companies that sell oil, gas, and coal violate these [fiduciary] duties by directly promoting the harms stemming from climate change.” The 42 co-signatories include undergraduate students, one graduate student, as well as Professors Bruce Monger, earth and atmospheric sciences, and Russell Rickford, history.
On Friday, the majority of CJC protestors were prevented from occupying the waiting area of President Martha E. Pollack’s office, where they had previously planned to peacefully sit, sing movement songs. However, four CJC members were allowed inside the building by CUPD to press the email send button on their complaint to the attorney general. This followed a rally in front of Day Hall.
The complaint claims that by investing in fossil fuels, Cornell is performing acts that contradict its stated tenants of pure and inclusive academic purpose, such as “disadvantaging low income communities and Black and Indigenous people of color,” “engaging in scientific misinformation campaigns to obscure climate science” and hiding “the financial risks associated with emissions regulations and future fossil fuel extraction.”
In the complaint, the CJC also cited the Cornell University Charter, New York Education Law, Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, Non-Profit Corporation Law, the New York Supreme court case New York v. ExxonMobil and the Cornell Office of the President’s statement of the Core Values.
“There is nothing inherently wrong about being in a waiting room. We did make the plan that if we are asked to leave by someone with the authority to do so, we will leave. We might not do that in the future, necessarily,” said Nadia Vitek ’19, a CJC organizer, in an interview on Thursday.
While Cornell’s administration and student activists are on the same page that climate change exists and addressing it is important, there are fundamental differences in strategy. The University has a Campus Sustainability Office, and is working to reduce environmental impact of every aspect of campus life, including food, transportation and housing.
The Cornell Climate Action Plan website states that “By demonstrating scalable low-carbon solutions on campus, advancing climate literacy and research initiatives, and accelerating impact through collaborative partnerships locally and globally, we can make a difference.”
For student activists like Vitek, these efforts seem hypocritical as long as the University continues to invest its endowment in fossil fuel producing companies.
“They talk about climate change and how they are ‘the greenest Ivy,’ but when it comes down to it, money and profit and corporate interests are what they care about. That’s what I see with their investments,” Vitek said.
The event is part of CJC’s Fossil Free Fridays, which have included a photo campaign, banner painting and participation in the Global Climate Strike.
“Our Fossil Free Fridays, which have been happening every Friday, we are making it all about escalation, starting with smaller things and working up to bigger and bigger things,” Vitek said.
Amanda H. Cronin ’21 contributed reporting to this article.