February 17, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Cornell Continues to Stall Fossil Fuel Divestment With Flimsy Arguments

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To the Editor:

In the last week, Cornell has made two public statements to congratulate themselves on their sustainability efforts and deny the need for fossil fuel divestment — without addressing the student protests which incited these statements.

The University can and must divest from fossil fuels, and campus sustainability efforts are not an acceptable substitution.

The University’s recently-released Fossil Fuel Divestment FAQ states that the Board “will consider a proposal for divestment from the Cornell community when either the President forwards a resolution from one of the shared governance assemblies, or all five of the assemblies support such a resolution.” However, the Board of Trustees can take up the issue of divestment on their own (as outlined in the process for divestment they developed when deciding to continue investing in fossil fuels in 2015), and they will if they have a conscience about climate change or consideration for the campus community.

A report prepared by the Campus Infrastructure  Committee of the University Assembly, which the University’s FAQ links to, already highlights many powerful arguments for divestment, and it is a shame the FAQ didn’t discuss them further. However, the FAQ did provide two flimsy arguments against fossil fuel divestment.

Their first argument: They think the University might lose money in the divestment process. Fossil fuel stocks are already doing poorly — they were the S&P’s worst sector from 2009 to 2019 — and the trend is expected to continue. It seems like it would be in the University’s duty to screen out risk from failing fossil fuel stocks. If the University divested responsibly over a few years, the indirect costs of divestment — paying people to move the money around, deciding on the right reinvestments, etc. — could be reduced. Five years is a common timeline for divestment, and we would be excited to further discuss the timeline and logistics as the University prepares to divest. The University has the capacity to make changes to their investment strategy: In fact, they recently moved the investment office to New York City for access to more financial talent. Presumably, some of that new talent could help them find fossil-free investments that may improve their returns.

Their second argument: The University, as a shareholder, could advocate for changes to the business practices of fossil fuel companies. This argument is unjustifiable and disingenuous. Think of it like this: You’re in a literature class, and you don’t like reading books. You ask your professor to stop assigning books to read. Your professor responds that the point of the class is to read literature, so they’re not going to stop assigning books.  Similarly, because the point of fossil fuel companies is to extract fossil fuels from the ground, shareholder votes will not convince them to stop expanding their drilling projects. The reasonable thing to do in this situation is drop the class, just like the right thing for Cornell to do is drop the investments. Furthermore, Cornell has self-reported that it has not engaged in shareholder advocacy or proxy voting for sustainability in the last several years. Why keep a soapbox around if you’re not going to stand on it?

If you look further at this report from the premier higher education sustainability assessment (AASHE STARS), you can see that the University performs the worst by far in the Investment and Finance category. Every year when answering hundreds of questions about travel, food, course offerings and more, Cornell decides to not answer questions about their financial management. This opaqueness is, at best, an acknowledgement that they’re not doing anything positive. At worst, it’s covering up shameful investment practices.

Campus sustainability is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t absolve the University of its complicity in climate change through investments. In the FAQ and the mass-email about sustainability at Cornell sent on Feb. 12, the University ddin’t acknowledge the issues with their sustainability plans. For one, the University is over 30 percent behind on its trajectory to reach greenhouse gas neutrality by 2030 — the 2013 Climate Action Plan sets the 2018 trajectory at around 150,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide (or equivalents for other greenhouse gases), while the real 2018 net emissions was 205,193 metric tons CO2e. To make up the difference, the University is hedging its bets on Earth Source Heat, a technology that, if successful, would warm the campus with very few emissions. We sincerely hope it lives up to the hype and provides a safe, effective and just way to heat campus, but we don’t yet know that it will. The technology, safety testing and implementation plans are still under development. 

So, yes, let’s get to climate neutrality as quickly as possible. Let’s test, build and implement solutions to the mess we’re in, with justice at the forefront. But isn’t it deeply hypocritical to do so while profiting off of the industry that makes our future less habitable every single day?


Hannah Brodsky ’22

Angeliki Cintron ’22

Gabriel Ewig ’23

Cassidy Graham ’22

Nima Homami grad

Kinen Kao ’22

Thea Kozakis grad

Avery MacLean ’23

C.A. Smith grad

Leila Simpfendoerfer ’23

Katie Sims ’20

Nick Sutera ’22

Nadia Vitek ’22

Tyler Brown ’22

Evan Azari ’22