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.
he Board may choose to maintain a shroud of apoliticism, completely denying student power as well as the moral implications of their own decisions, but the Cornell community has never stood idly by when people’s rights and futures are at stake.
Climate Justice Cornell, a campus organization agitating for Cornell University to divest its endowment from energy companies, recently hosted socially responsible investing specialist Katelyn Kriesel to discuss the economics argument for fossil fuel divestment. As a skeptic of politically-motivated divestment campaigns, I was curious to hear the financial case for why endowments should liquidate any holdings they have in energy companies. Historically, the primary obstacle to endowments adopting an anti-fossil fuel stance is the pesky phrase “fiduciary duty.” In a nutshell, fiduciary duty obliges trustees to act in the best interest of the trust beneficiaries, which in this case means maximizing the risk adjusted return of Cornell’s endowment. Adopting the stance advocated by CJC would entail a blanket mandate to eschew the energy sector, which could trigger legal action since one could argue, with some justification, that a categorical sector ban may not align with beneficiaries’ interests. Realizing this, divestment advocates take a different tack by building a so-called “financial case” for the university to divest. As Ms. Kriesel outlined, the energy sector has underperformed the S&P 500 index in the past several years. (For the sake of argument, we will ignore the half a dozen errors in her methodology which used three prominent energy companies as a proxy for sector performance, the S&P 500 as a benchmark and disregarded dividends and risk.) On the basis of this information, she argues, universities should divest because energy companies have performed poorly in the past.
In a 22-1-0 vote, the Employee Assembly passed a resolution to divest from fossil fuels. Amidst two major protests surrounding divestment in the past week, the assembly argued that investing does not align with Cornell’s core values.
Climate Justice Cornell blocked campus roads for the second time in less than seven days, demanding that Cornell divest from the fossil fuel industry and disrupting the commutes of students finishing afternoon classes on Wednesday afternoon.