Divestment has had a long, complicated history at Cornell. The movement started nearly a decade ago and has involved years of protests, assemblies and resolutions, cultimating in the Board of Trustees’ decision to effectively divest the University from fossil fuels on May 22.
For Sarah Kline ’20, an environment and sustainability major, environmental activism on campus was what got her interested in pursuing an honors thesis to investigate the history of divestment at Cornell and its relation to the larger movement happening across the country.
Initially, Kline’s research centered around how environmental activism by student groups at Cornell has driven the movement towards divestment. She was particularly struck by the climate strike on Sept. 20 that garnered hundreds of students protesting Cornell’s continued investment in fossil fuels.
Over the course of the academic year, Kline continued to develop her passion for environmental activism by following Climate Justice Cornell, the group that organized the protest, and its mission to demand divestment by disrupting “business as usual.”
“There’s been a lot of increased visibility of CJC and their actions on campus … they’ve been doing a lot of demonstrations that really draw your attention,” Kline said. “People have to confront this demonstration and … business as usual is disrupted. Because business as usual perpetuates the widespread use and consumption of fossil fuels, [which] is not working.”
However, like many other student researchers, Kline’s work was derailed by the pandemic and she was forced to find new ways she could approach her research remotely.
“My research was unable to continue because the IRB wasn’t accepting non-essential research proposals anymore,” Kline explained. “[But I was] super stubborn about not wanting to concede that honors thesis project.”
Kline decided to refocus her project on Cornell’s history of divestment under the supervision of Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, who has been a prominent figure in denouncing the University’s continued investment in fossil fuels.
She explained that although the recent moratorium on new fossil fuel investments has commonly been regarded as Cornell truly divesting from fossil fuels, debate among climate activists remains as to whether that’s truly the case.
CJC members were not fully satisfied with the decision — citing the fact that Cornell’s endowment will likely still own holdings of broad-market index funds partially composed of oil and gas stocks — while Howarth said the University’s moratorium was “exactly what we asked for.”
“I think understanding the nuances of what commitment to divestment entails, and … the extent to which divestment can be pursued in certain contexts has been really interesting to learn about, and the debate surrounding them has been really eye-opening,” Kline said.
According to Kline, another interesting aspect of her research has been deciphering how much of Cornell’s endowment is actually invested in fossil fuel industries. Although the investment fund is required to make limited disclosures, specific asset allocation is not publicly available information.
“Cornell relies on third-party investment managers to handle their investments for the endowment. So it’s hard to say how much of Cornell’s endowment is invested in fossil fuels,” she said. “That’s definitely an issue … increasing transparency of the location of investments is really important in mitigating the potential impact … of fossil fuel investment.”
Although Kline felt challenged by the demands of the research project given the time constraints posed by the end of the semester, she felt advantaged by her extensive access to the professors who have been actively involved in Cornell’s divestment campaign.
“I do want to make sure that I present a well-crafted, articulate history and analysis of the development of divestment at Cornell,” Kline said. “I personally don’t want to do an injustice to describing that history to the people who are actually thoroughly involved in it.”
With the upcoming academic year shrouded in uncertainty, Kline’s research on divestment has inspired her to continue keeping in contact with those who have educated her on the movement. Her research has also motivated her to continue communicating the importance of environmental activism and divestment throughout her future pursuits.
“I think it is important to capture this part of history in great clarity … because it is a very important part of Cornell’s climate right now … and it’s a really [significant] campaign happening here and around the world,” Kline said.