February 22, 2023

AMPLIFY! | Divestment Isn’t Over

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Recently, I was reminded of the Cornell endowment fossil fuel divestment campaign when I cleaned old Climate Justice Cornell posters out of the cooperative house I live in. The house used to be a meeting place for CJC before I began living there in the fall of 2020. Now, as the two last Climate Justice Cornell members who took part in the first divestment campaign are about to graduate from the University, we want to share some of the history of the campaign and where CJC is turning its attention next.

The divestment campaign began many semesters ago but notably gained momentum starting in the fall of 2019. CJC members reached out to faculty and students from other clubs, gaining support from a wide collection of allies ranging from Mothers Out Front, to Cornell University Sustainable Design, to the Vegan Club. CJC and other clubs held public protests nearly every week during the spring of 2020 until the campus shut down due to COVID-19. The most notable of these was a mock wedding between Cornell and the fossil fuel industry — two puppets modeled after the clocktower and a Monopoly Man-esque fossil fuel executive were paraded around Ho Plaza by students in orange beanies and oil-themed masks. 

Other protests focused on the intersectional elements of the campaign such as migrant and racial justice, acknowledging that climate change is inherently a social justice issue. Both the Student Assembly and University Assembly stood in support of the campaign by passing resolutions calling on Cornell’s board of trustees to divest. Even Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi was forced to address the situation when a group of 12 students hosted a sit-in outside Pres. Martha Pollack’s office, taking over the administrative offices on the third floor of Day Hall. 

Ultimately, the board announced a moratorium on new fossil fuel investments in May 2020. Or rather, we learned that the moratorium began several years ago when the board’s investment committee made the decision to divest secretly. This was a bittersweet moment in that divestment did happen, but may have happened anyway without all of the activism work of the past few years.

Still, the divestment campaign was not without its detractors — CJC members warned each other of the vague threat of Cornell surveilling our actions related to the divestment campaign. New York State Attorney General Letitia James (D-N.Y.) sent us a letter saying that she refused to sue Cornell for negligence with its endowment after CJC sent a formal complaint to her office about Cornell’s willingness to invest in a dying fossil fuel industry. CUPD officers trailed us to and from protests. Even on the Cornell subreddit, anonymous users complained about some of our protest tactics like blocking campus roads and littering trees by Day Hall with streamers. Despite these setbacks, Cornell divested anyway.

However, Cornell money continues to find its way into the fossil fuel industry through the Teachers Insurance Annuity Association, which provides retirement funds for all Cornell professors. With $1.3 trillion total in assets, the company currently has $78 billion invested in fossil fuels, and is the fourth largest holder of coal bonds in the world. Furthermore, while it offers ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) products, the so-called “low carbon” funds contain more fossil fuel investment than the general funds. It is clear that the company is green-washing and misleading its clients.

Continuing its legacy of fighting for divestment, Climate Justice Cornell is joining forces with TIAA Divest, a campaign working to pressure TIAA to stop investing in fossil fuels. On Valentine’s Day, members distributed “divestmentines,” fliers aimed to spread awareness about the company’s actions among professors, many of whom are not even aware that their retirement funds are fueling climate destruction. Immediate plans include emailing professors and potentially holding rallies and press conferences to draw attention to the issue. However, if that doesn’t work, CJC is prepared to support further actions to ensure Cornell upholds its alleged commitments to a clean future. 

Julia Gonzales ‘23, Brandon Restler ‘23 and Fenya Bartram ‘25 are students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Climate Justice Cornell can be reached at [email protected]. Amplify! runs alternate Wednesdays this semester.