Fossil Fuel Divestment Letter to the Board of Trustees
To President Skorton and the Cornell Board of Trustees:
We write you in your capacity as leaders, both of this community and of others: you have before you, in our five assemblies’ resolutions, an opportunity, and a mandate, to lead. Openly as Cornell may aspire to, it is plain that we can never truly lead on the issue of climate change so long as we are invested in, so long as we are very literally banking on, its intensification.
It is equally plain that a leadership indifferent to climate change is less and less deserving of the name. For it’s in its warming that our moment is most distinctive, most portentous, most in trouble:
Each of the past three decades has been the hottest on record. Our planet is now warmer than it has been in 250,000 years. Our planet’s rate of warming is now greater than at any time in its four-billion-year history. This warming is highly lethal in its effects, and over the medium term “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community.” 2˚C over pre-industrial temperatures is the maximum amount of warming any of the world’s nations deem “safe”; we are on track to exceed that amount in 35 years. This timeline is a function of our continued use of oil and natural gas and coal. It is, in other words, a choice. This is a crisis, in short, of leadership.
Nowhere do we know all this so thoroughly, so methodically, as at research universities like Cornell. As faculty we teach, and as students we study, climate science, and many of us are intimately, daily involved in the underlying research. We write you to recover some relation between our knowledge here and our actions. We name that relation integrity when it’s sound, and our integrity as students, as researchers, as teachers, and as workers is a main object, a main stake, of all our resolutions.
Each of Cornell’s five constituent assemblies strongly endorsed divestment only after extended and open debate and discussion. We urge you to do the same, to consider all the arguments, both for and against divestment from fossil fuels. For wherever we have, the case for divestment has won.
You will hear it argued, for example, that divestment poses risks to our endowment; throughout this conversation, our financial office has cited $100 million in gains, over the past decade, by the investments our resolutions target. Only lately do we learn the derivation of this figure: a comparison of S&P 500 and S&P Energy 500 indices over the years 2004-2013. But this same procedure for the years 2006-2015 yields a $45 million loss to Cornell’s endowment from our fossil-fuel investments; this, surely, is the more relevant fact. By our office’s own methodology, in other words, our endowment would be better off if we had divested from fossil fuels in early 2013, at the time of the first divestment resolution, or at any time since.
Over that same time period, a growing number of educational institutions, pensions and sovereign wealth funds, and faith-based and charitable organizations together commanding a total of $2.6 trillion have committed to some form of divestment from fossil fuels. Many of these funds have outperformed Cornell’s endowment for some time now, and as these groups and others continue to find ways to reconcile their financial and ethical missions, Cornell will need to do more to explain why it does not.
Financial considerations, in fact, drove many of these organizations’ decisions to divest. A core recognition for all of us is that we as a planet will cross that 2˚C “safe” threshold if we burn more than a fraction of the world’s fossil fuel reserves. A growing number of financial
authorities, including leaders of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Bank of
England, warn that that when societies fully recognize this fact – as they eventually must – fossil
fuel valuations will prove to have been a bubble. We have no indication our investment office
considers or prepares for this prospect with any seriousness at all. This alarms us. Tacit in our
investment office’s rejection of our resolutions is a presumption that the future will be a lot like
the past, that fossil fuels twenty years from now will perform something like, or in fact better than, they have lately. We must underscore how cynical, unjustified, and extreme a bet this is on inertia, on inaction, and on catastrophe - and how strange a bet this is for an educational institution like Cornell to be making.
In short, we care deeply for Cornell’s future, for its financial future not least of all. We continue to call for an honest and open discussion of risks. And we have never yet seen any
advantage in a disregard for the above realities. Neither do we see any advantage in a disavowal of our past. We are accustomed to hearing concern for the “precedent” our requests may set. Let us be clear what the precedent here is.
In 1985, our faculty senate voted overwhelmingly for Cornell to divest from companies operating in apartheid South Africa; in the course of the year, over 1000 students, staff, and faculty were arrested calling for the same. Cornell’s trustees declined the request, citing potential risks to our endowment. But that vote and those arrests signaled the cresting of a
movement which led to the passage, only a year later in 1986, of Congress’s Comprehensive
Anti-Apartheid Act, widely perceived as the death-knell of apartheid South Africa. That act imposed massive sanctions, and in its wake, over the next three years, Cornell withdrew over $100 million from companies operating in apartheid South Africa - a divestment far larger, and swifter, than any we call for now from fossil fuels.
This is a history we memorialize and celebrate, for example, in our Sesquicentennial Grove. Its lessons are several:
1. What is environmentally or socially unsustainable is financially unsustainable.
2. Therefore the question before the trustees has never really been whether to divest from fossil fuels, but when.
3. Divestment works: “In almost every divestment campaign we reviewed from adult services to Darfur, from tobacco to South Africa, divestment campaigns were successful in lobbying for restrictive legislation.” Divestment campaigns are a certain sign of change (and ours is far and away the fastest growing divestment movement in history). Whatever one may feel about their propriety, it is wisdom to prepare for their success.
In all of this, what is least precedented at Cornell is the unanimity of our assembly requests: over the past two years, assemblies representing all facets of our community have voted 22-2, 46-13, 16-1, 12-7, 11-1, 22-1, and 11-4 in support of divestment from fossil fuels. And so it is lastly in the name of shared governance at Cornell that we call on you to act.
We thank you for your consideration.
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