Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, presents on divestment during the Faculty Senate meeting at Schwartz Auditorium on Feb. 12.

February 17, 2020

As Cornell Assemblies Gear Up to Vote on Fossil Fuels, Faculty Senate Introduces Divestment Resolution

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The Cornell Faculty Senate introduced a resolution on Wednesday to support divestment from fossil fuels and will take a final vote at its next meeting on March 11. 

This vote is taking place alongside similar divestment votes from every governing assembly on campus, including the Employee Assembly, Graduate and Professional Student Assembly, University Assembly and Student Assembly.

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology, introduced the resolution to the Faculty Senate, citing the pressing threat of climate change.

“Unlike other divestment causes, fossil fuels run the very high risk of doing serious damage to our planet and thus establishes clear differences from other issues of divestment,” Howarth said at the meeting.

The resolution calls for no future investment in fossil fuels, in addition to diverting current assets “in an orderly manner and as rapidly as possible.” 

If this resolution passes in each governing body, then the Board of Trustees will have to confront fossil fuel divestment again at its March 20 meeting.

The Board of Trustees last touched on the issue of fossil fuel divestment in 2015, when it decided not to divest from fossil fuel companies, saying that the University’s ties to these companies were not “morally reprehensible.”

A year after the 2015 vote, the board released a set of guidelines on grappling with divestment in the future.  

According to these guidelines, circumstances that would prompt the trustees to revisit divestment include: if a company partakes in ethically questionable actions, if divestment would have a meaningful impact in correcting the harm caused by the company in question or if a company contributes to harm in a way that is inconsistent with the goals of the University. 

In 2015, the trustees felt fossil fuel companies did not meet the established guidelines — but according to Howarth, circumstances have changed in the past five years.

“The average person is more willing to accept climate change is a real and present danger than was true five years ago,” Howarth told The Sun before the meeting. 

On Feb. 10, the GPSA unanimously voted for fossil fuel divestment — this resolution is slated to be brought up at other assembly meetings for the spring 2020 semester.

The U.A. and E.A. are expected to take up the resolution on Feb. 18 and Feb. 19, respectively. The S.A. will vote on the resolution on March 12, becoming the last governing body to vote on fossil fuel divestment.

Fossil fuel divestment activism has surged this past week in Ithaca. On Wednesday and Thursday, activists took the streets downtown to protest Canada’s proposed Coastal GasLink pipeline, resulting in 12 arrests on Thursday. 

Also on Thursday, dozens of Climate Justice Cornell protesters staged a mock wedding between the University and the fossil fuel industry for Global Divestment Day, blocking Tower Road and the East Avenue intersection during the protest.

In December 2019, CJC delivered a letter to Day Hall, demanding that the University sever its ties with the fossil fuel industry by Feb. 13, or the protesters will disrupt “business as usual” on campus until the Board of Trustees divests, The Sun previously reported. 

If any of the five assemblies fail to pass the resolution, the topic can still be brought to the Board of Trustees if President Martha E. Pollack decides to raise the issue.

The five years since the previous trustee vote have been the five warmest years on record. In the past year alone, climate change has exacerbated extreme weather events, like the fires in Australia and California, the ice sheets warming faster than ever and the slowing circulation of the Atlantic ocean, Howarth said at the meeting. 

Fossil fuel divestment has been a topic of conversation at other U.S. universities — Georgetown University announced on Feb. 6 it would divest from the fossil fuel industry and Harvard University’s faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of fossil fuel divestment on Feb. 5.

“We’re no longer asking [the Trustees] to jump out and be first, but we are asking that they be the first of the Ivy League,” Howarth said. “Cornell prides ourselves on being a university that cares about sustainability and we like to think of ourselves as the greenest of the Ivy League.” 

“If, for example, Harvard divests before we do that sullies our reputation, we care about that and we hope the trustees care about that,” Howarth continued.

While the resolution is early in its journey, Howarth is optimistic that the changing climate — both worldwide and at Cornell — will yield action. 

“This is morally reprehensible, it’s not like other divestment issues, because the future of our society and planet is at stake,” Howarth said. “It is very important to the reputation of Cornell that we show some leadership here and not … divest 10 years too late. I am cautiously optimistic they are going to hear that.”

After the presentation of the resolution, Howarth fielded questions from his colleagues. Senate members have a month to form a position before the vote at the next meeting.