Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer

Student protesters recited wedding vows in hopes of swaying the University to divest from fossil fuels.

February 14, 2020

Climate Justice Cornell Demands University Divests from Big Oil, Disrupts Traffic for Two Hours

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Scores of students took to campus for a wedding — one between Cornell and the oil industry — in a symbolic gesture to protest the University’s continued investment in fossil fuels on Thursday.

Officiated by Climate Justice Cornell, the Ho Plaza mock ceremony was followed by a reception — a protest on the intersection of Tower Road and East Avenue, blocking and shutting down the intersection for roughly two hours.

Joe Rowland ’73, a 2015 trustee candidate who had campaigned on the issue of divestment, agreed with the student protesters.

“[The trustees] have old fashioned ideas,” said Rowland, who participated in the protest. “They just have to get with the times and wake up to where the future’s going and put Cornell back in the front where it should be instead of at the back.”

Student activist frustrations were apparent in the wedding vows they recited on behalf of the clocktower and big oil puppets.

Cornell Climate Justice protesters blocked the intersection of East Avenue and Tower Road, demanding the University's divestment from fossil fuels.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer

Cornell Climate Justice protesters blocked the intersection of East Avenue and Tower Road, demanding the University’s divestment from fossil fuels.

Puppeteers for the six-foot-tall, cardboard clocktower chanted, “Big Oil, you have my heart, my soul, my endowment; I promise to stay invested in our relationship for all the years to come.”

The puppeteers representing oil companies responded: “Cornell, I got an old, wretched, dying industry, propped up by government subsidies and misinformation campaigns, yet, despite all this, you have chosen so generously to give me your money – I mean, love.”

In the same week as student protests about the University’s investment in fossil fuels, Cornell sent an email announcing the formation of Sustainable Cornell Council, a new University-led organization that will coordinate Cornell’s sustainability initiatives.

“Cornell has embraced sustainability for decades. Not only are we home to some of the world’s leading sustainability and climate change researchers, we are also a national leader in campus sustainability,” the SCC newsletter stated on Wednesday.

While the University has announced that it aims to be carbon neutral by 2035, and is working on renewable energy projects such as earth source heating to achieve that goal, anything short of fossil fuel divestment will not satisfy the student protesters.

“[The administration] released that sustainability email yesterday. We think it was to preempt this [protest], but going carbon neutral by 2035, that’s not enough,” said Rebecca Pendrak ’22, one the puppeteers for the clocktower. “As long as we’re still invested in fossil fuels, there’s no way we can claim that we’re actually a sustainable campus.”

While fossil fuel divestment is a core issue for CJC, they advocate for other causes as well.

Colin Benedict ’21 started the “wedding” with a call for solidarity with the Wet’suwet’en people in Canada, who do not want a pipeline built through their ancestral lands. The campus protests were joined by a solidarity protest, which closed the streets in downtown Ithaca on Wednesday.

On Thursday, twelve people were arrested in Ithaca’s downtown Chase Bank while protesting in support of the Wet’suwet’en people.

“Environmental justice and indigenous rights are two sides to the same coin,” Benedict said.

Protest organizers distributed flyers with QR codes, which directed users to a contact form encouraging participants and passerby to contact the Canadian government and express their opinions about the pipeline.

Music blared as the protesters held a dance party in the intersection, waving the massive puppets while blocking traffic. As the number of protesters started dwindling, activists kept the energy high by delivering speeches on the University’s new sustainability initiative, action students can take to help with the climate crisis and other issues related to divestment.

At 3 p.m., protesters started clearing out of the intersection after nearly two hours of blocking the road. CJC members proceeded to Klarman Hall to paint a mock oil rig orange that they placed outside for passing students to see.

Soon afterwards, campus began to return to business as usual. According to Patty Poist, communications and marketing manager at TCAT, buses resumed their standard routes as of 3:23 p.m., when the protesters began to relocate.

CJC protesters walked from Ho Plaza, where the protest began, to the intersection of Tower Road and East Avenue on the Cornell campus.

Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer

CJC protesters walked from Ho Plaza, where the protest began, to the intersection of Tower Road and East Avenue on the Cornell campus.

By 4:30 p.m., activity had quieted down and a handful of participants clad in neon orange beanies occupied the floor of the Klarman Atrium, sitting around cardboard boxes filled with materials from the protest.

While Cornell operations had resumed by the end of the day, the activists are intent on continuing to disrupt “business as usual” until the University commits to fossil fuel divestment.

Ari Dubow ’21 and Madeline Rosenberg ’23 contributed reporting.