Now, as climate change accelerates, 72 scientists from Cornell are joining over 1,000 academics in calling for New York State to divest its pension fund from fossil fuels.
Following success in pushing Cornell University to divest from fossil fuels in May, Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, and Climate Justice Cornell activist Katie Sims ’20 joined other climate experts from across the state on a virtual panel hosted by 350.org to push for New York’s Common Retirement Fund to divest from fossil fuels.
“[New York has] the most aggressive and progressive climate legislation of any state, the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act,” Howarth said. “Yet, our state pension fund is still investing in fossil fuels — totally inconsistent with what the assembly, the senate, the governor and the people of New York want us to be doing.”
Howarth and Sims joined other experts from across the state to release a letter signed by over 1,100 scientists urging New York legislators — particularly Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) and Comptroller Tom DiNapoli — to divest the state’s retirement funds from the fossil fuel industry.
The letter pushes for the passing of the Fossil Fuel Divestment Act, which would require the comptroller to divest the funds from major fossil fuel companies in order to “protect the fund, as well as its members and retirees, from the growing risk of rapid devaluation these companies present, while also sending a powerful message that it is no longer acceptable to invest in a business model that is driving the climate crisis.”
The New York Common Retirement Fund is the state’s pension plan — a pool of funds invested by the state to supply its employees with income upon retirement. New York State has the third largest pension fund in the country, totaling at over $194 billion as of March 31.
While Howarth and other student activists have advocated for divestment on moral and ethical grounds, they also pointed out the financial downturn of the fossil fuel industry in recent years. A report in 2018 estimated that the fund would have been $22 billion richer if it would have been divested in 2008. This would have translated to approximately $19,820 for each of the fund’s members and retirees.
“[We] were pushing them on the ethical and moral grounds but what really swung our trustees were the financial grounds, they recognized that it’s not in our interests as a university to continue those investments,” Howarth said.
Cornell placed a moratorium on investments in the fossil fuel industry in May, following a semester of climate-based protests and assembly votes. Cornell has debated the idea of fossil fuel divestment for years, most notably in 2015 and 2016, when the Board of Trustees rejected the proposal — setting a precedent that the University would only divest if a company’s actions were “morally reprehensible.”
In March 2019, the conversation around divestment resurged on campus following a lecture by Bill McKibben, the host of Thursday’s event and founder of the climate organization 350.org. McKibben spoke to campus about his experiences in advocating for fossil fuel divestment at Middlebury College — which divested in February 2019 — and implored Cornell to play a significant role in moving colleges and universities toward divestment.
Following McKibben’s speech on campus, climate advocacy groups like Climate Justice Cornell ramped up calls for divestment, staging many protests including a sit-in at Day Hall, blocking streets on multiple occasions and even hosting a mock wedding between Cornell and the fossil fuel industry.
“Institutions that exist to provide a safe and secure future shouldn’t be complicit in continuing fossil fuel extraction,” Sims, a former member of CJC, said at the webinar. “The pension fund, which was designed to do just that —provide security for New Yorkers over a very long term — needs to make sure that the future is livable as well.”