Following the Board of Trustees’ Friday decision to institute a moratorium on new private investments focused on fossil fuels, many questions linger about the details, with some feeling dismayed over the scope of Cornell’s divestment.
Divestment is a complicated topic, involving years of protests, elusive details about Cornell’s endowment and a global conversation about fossil fuels and climate change.
Cornell activists have been advocating for fossil fuel divest for nearly a decade, and Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and environmental biology, has been working on it since the start. Seven years ago, he co-authored a paper laying out a blueprint for New York State to be fossil fuel-free, and his research as an earth scientist and ecologist has focused on the effects of methane and fossil fuels.
After the Board of Trustees’ first fossil fuel divestment vote in 2016, the board said it wouldn’t address the topic again unless all five constituent assemblies passed the same resolution and explained the industry as “morally reprehensible,” according to Howarth.
Last semester, Howarth, who is also chair of the University Assembly, and the U.A.’s Campus Infrastructure Committee decided to push for divestment again: They ultimately planned to pass a short resolution in all five assemblies to get the board to reconsider divestment.
Prof. Caroline Levine, English, helped draft the short resolution and a white paper — a supplementary policy report — with the committee. In the white paper, she claimed that the fossil fuel industry has led misinformation campaigns, so Cornell must divest to maintain its credibility as leaders in sustainability. Levine added in the supplement that fossil fuels are also neither ethical nor financially prudent to invest in.
By March, all assemblies had passed the resolution, and President Martha E. Pollack brought the topic to the board, Howarth said.
But given its history, the divestment resolutions did not propose brand new information or even action, instead formalizing actions the board has already been taking.
“The decision [on Friday], basically, ratifies and affirms what they’re doing anyway,” Howarth said. “There’s every reason to believe that back in 2015, a substantial amount of the endowment was in fossil fuels, and now it’s a little less than 5 percent. Clearly, they’ve been moving out.”
Ultimately, the fine details of University endowment are not public knowledge, and it’s impossible to know the exact breakdown of just how much Cornell invests in fossil fuels now, Levine said.
Early in the divestment conversation, different opponents argued that Cornell didn’t have enough current investments for divestment to make a difference, and that there were too many investments, so divestment would be harmful to the University, according to Levine.
“The fact is, we just don’t know,” Levine said. “We just had to make the argument that it’s not good for Cornell to keep investing in them.”
Despite welcoming the moratorium, Climate Justice Cornell activists are not fully satisfied.
“The trustees did not divest their holdings from index funds such as the S&P 500 and public equity mandates,” said Ellie Pfeffer ’23, a CJC organizer. “This is a first step and a win, but it is not perfect. And we are not going to ignore the fact that it is not complete.”
CJC wanted the University to go farther and divest from these large index funds, but Howarth and Levine affirmed that the board’s decision was “exactly what we asked for” in the assemblies’ resolutions.
“We did not demand that Cornell immediately get rid of all the large funds that are incredibly difficult to track and figure out if they have a little bit of fossil fuels in there,” Howarth said. “That would be an impossible ask.”
Instead, the assemblies asked Cornell to get rid of all its direct investments and halt any new investments. And that’s what the board committed to — plus more, by promising new investments in sustainable energy alternatives, according to Howarth.
The decision, effective immediately, includes a moratorium on new private equity and bond vehicles focused on fossil fuels. That category makes up 4.2 percent of Cornell’s long-term investments, but that should “dwindle to zero over time as existing investments mature and assets are redeployed to other areas,” said Cornell’s chief investment officer Ken Miranda in a University press release.
Some student activists also believed that the fact that the University press release did not refer to the board’s actions as divestment downplayed the students’ role and wanted to avoid encouraging future divestment efforts for other causes.
“When we were talking to the [University] administration in the past, one of the big arguments against fossil fuel divestment was the slippery slope argument,” said Nadia Vitek ’22, a CJC organizer. “[The question was,] ‘If they divest, what are they going to divest from next?’ I think that is kind of silly.”
Levine said that there was a larger concern that using divestment language might “open up the floodgates,” but that was a different issue. According to Howarth, when the board brought up these concerns in the Friday meeting, University leadership maintained that this divestment issue was distinct, saying that the Cornell community really views climate change as a “existential threat to their future.”
The difference in language comes from the fact that the University considers full divestment in the context of an endowment to include all indexed and other public equity mandates — the board’s Friday decision did not account for this.
Levine had spoken to some people who worried that the University’s usage of the word “moratorium” meant that the move was not divestment, but she reiterated that it really is.
Speaking to the larger conversation about divestment, she clarified that fossil fuel divestment is not defined as one thing, but as “a series of commitments to take money out of fossil fuels.”
Howarth explained that the many protests drew attention to the issue of divestment and ultimately changed minds through public conversations.
“Students have played a really critical role in this,” Howarth said. “Students were sitting in in the office of President Pollack in early December, which certainly attracted her attention. Without her support, the trustees would not have acted.”
While the administration did not formally acknowledge the role of Climate Justice Cornell and other student activists, organizers felt that their protests were part of the reason the board took action.
“I don’t know that they would have put out a public notice without us or would have even done it without student pressure,” Vitek said. “I think it speaks to the power students have, even though they wouldn’t admit that it was because of us.”
CJC did not act alone, collaborating with a number of other activist organizations. Pfeffer credited Native American and Indigenous Students at Cornell, Cornell Welcomes Refugees, Cornell Vegan Society, Extinction Rebellion and the Cornell chapter of Democratic Socialists of America as crucial allies in their fight for divestment and effort to raise public awareness.
“Part of the reason I thought it was important to push for [divestment] was to have the conversation about climate change and what these companies are doing is evil,” Howarth said. “Having that conversation, it’s an educational goal.”
Beyond the conversation, Cornell’s divestment helped Cornell stick to its green commitment and be a leader in sustainability, Howarth added.
“When Cornell is also willing to take this brave and important leadership position with relation to climate change, that will prompt others to follow suit,” Levine said. “We’re hoping this isn’t just about Cornell.”
Howarth hopes that this vote will specifically put more pressure on New York State to divest its Common Retirement Fund, another large investment pool. And with more divestments from big institutions, it’s harder for fossil fuel industries to continue “what they’ve always done.”
“If you’d talked to me certainly a year ago, or even last fall, I wouldn’t have thought there was any chance of this going through on this timeframe,” Howarth said. “I’m just delighted.”