Cornellians Debate Fossil Fuel Divestment

Students, faculty and University Assembly members gathered Monday to debate whether the University should divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry...

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By Stephanie Yan via Cornell Daily Sun, 3/25/15

Patrick Lynch ’18 and Paul Monoghan ’18 debate whether Cornell should divest its endowment from fossil fuels Monday. (Simon Li / Sun Staff Photographer)
Patrick Lynch ’18 and Paul Monoghan ’18 debate whether Cornell should divest its endowment from fossil fuels Monday. (Simon Li / Sun Staff Photographer)

Students, faculty and University Assembly members gathered Monday to debate whether the University should divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry.

The eight debaters, composed of students and professors, raised questions as to whether the University should use its endowment to make a political gesture and whether divestment would be hypocritical.

The U.A. — opposing resolutions in support of divestment from the Faculty Senate, Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Student Assembly — voted to recommend not divesting from fossil fuels in May, but revisited the issue Tuesday following a resolution passed by the S.A. this semester asking the University not to reinvest in the coal industry.

According to Emma Johnston ’16, arts and sciences representative for the S.A., Monday’s debate was intended to precede the U.A.’s review.

“We’re introducing a resolution in the U.A. that will advocate for divestment, after a resolution passed last year arguing for us to not divest. It’s reevaluating that decision,” Johnston said.

Debaters opposing divestment expressed concern that doing so would make the endowment appear biased.

“[The resolution to divest] undermines the most precious asset a university has in addressing any controversial issue: its reputation as an unbiased source of scientific knowledge,” said Prof. Larry Brown, earth and atmospheric sciences.

Brown also said he believes divestment would alienate the fossil fuel industry, whose support the University needs in order make innovations in renewable energy.

“[Divestment] only serves to reduce the incentive of the fossil fuel industry to engage with Cornell faculty in any meaningful way,” he said.

Debaters also said they believed it would be hypocritical to divest from an industry that the University relies on heavily.

“We all owe our current standard of living and likely our very existence to the inexpensive energy that the fossil fuel industry has provided over the past century,” Brown said.

However, supporters of divestment pointed out that Cornell has divested for ethical reasons in the past with successful results. Audree Keurajian ’15 cited the University’s divestment from oil companies in Sudan in 2006 following the Darfur genocide as evidence that the investment portfolio can be “guided by moral leanings.”

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology, argued for the use of divestment as a symbolic gesture. He said he believes doing so would create social pressure for action against climate change and motivate fossil fuel companies to invest in renewable energy.

“As a university, we have an obligation to provide intellectual and ethical leadership [and] to communicate what we know about fossil fuels,” Howarth said. “Divestment is a powerful tool for doing that.”

According to Amanda Vargo ’16, one of the event’s planners, the debate’s main purpose was to educate students in the history of divestment at Cornell and expose them to both sides of the argument over divestment.

The debate was held by Environmental Subcommittee of the S.A. Community Life Committee and moderated by the Cornell Speech and Debate Union (formerly the Cornell Forensics Society), according to Johnston.

Johnston added that she wanted the debate to serve as “a starting point” for further discussion.

“A lot of times, people will default to being either for divestment or against divestment, but they’re not checking their own views of the topic,” Johnston said. “Getting everyone in the same room and making them discuss why they have certain beliefs is really crucial.”

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