Jing Jiang / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Employee Assembly meeting at the Physical Science Building on Sept. 18.

February 20, 2020

Employee Assembly Greenlights Fossil Fuel Divestment

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After a week of divestment protests, Cornell’s Employee Assembly voted — nearly unanimously — in favor of divesting from fossil fuels.

The resolution, which passed with a 22-1-0 vote, calls for the University to “divest from all investments in coal, oil, and natural gas in an orderly manner and as rapidly as possible.” The vote comes after the unanimous passage of similar resolutions in the University Assembly and the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly. 

Only hours later, Climate Justice Cornell staged their second major protest — blocking traffic in front of Statler Hall — in the last seven days, urging the University to divest from fossil fuels, following suit of other universities including Georgetown.

In 2015, similar resolutions calling for divestment were submitted by the five shared governance assemblies of the University. However, the Board of Trustees voted against divestment. After the contentious decision, the board released a set of guidelines in the event divestment would come up in the future. 

The guidelines outlined three critical points for the board to reconsider fossil fuel divestment: companies would have to be committing acts that are “morally reprehensible,” divestment would need to have a “meaningful impact” and not inadvertently trigger other social issues or the company’s goals would have to be “inconsistent with the goals and principles of the university.”

Adam Howell, chair of the Employee Assembly and a sponsor of the resolution, argued that these criteria had been met. He pointed to what he said was the fossil fuel industry’s usage of “strategies to subvert efforts to address [climate change] in any meaningful way,” in complete disregard of the human impact of climate change — calling this “morally reprehensible.” 

“Cornell has an opportunity to be one of the most noteworthy institutions to divest,” Howell said, urging the University to take action. 

Howell also cited the University’s mission and core values to argue that the fossil fuel industry’s goals do not align with Cornell’s. The University mission states that Cornell aims “to enhance the lives and livelihoods of students, the people of New York and others around the world,” while the University core values codifies “respect for the natural environment”. 

“I think it’s self-evident that the investment in fossil fuel companies are in contrast to that statement,” said Howell.

Many in the E.A. were vocal in their support for the resolution, including constituent Scott Burke, an engineer specializing in building construction, who expressed his support, despite working for a petroleum company in his hometown. 

Burke acknowledged the potential negative effects fossil fuel divestment may have on his career. However “it’s not going to be because Cornell divests,” Burke said at the meeting, explaining that fossil fuel divestment would most likely have a minimal economic impact on the companies he works for.

Currently, Cornell invests approximately $95 million towards the fossil fuel industry — a miniscule amount compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that companies like ExxonMobil are worth.

“It’s more about the University as a whole, what’s right for the University,” Burke said. “What do we want to say to our students, what do we want to say to our researchers, what do we want to say as a University?”