Op Ed: Fossil Fuel Divestment

The following is an open letter to President Elizabeth Garrett and the Cornell Board of Trustees...


By Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology; Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics; Jeffrey Bergfalk grad; Emma Johnston ’16 via The Cornell Daily Sun, 10/19/15

The following is an open letter to President Elizabeth Garrett 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.

It is plain that we can never truly lead on the issue of climate change so long as we are invested in and very literally banking on its intensification.

It is equally plain that a leadership indifferent to climate change is increasingly problematic. 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.” Two degrees celsius 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, 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 and methodically than at research universities like Cornell. As faculty, we teach, and as students, we study climate science, and many of us are intimately involved in the underlying research. We ask you to recover some relation between our knowledge and our actions. 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 four constituent assemblies and the faculty senate strongly endorsed divestment only after extensive 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. 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 have we learned 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 investment officials’ 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, pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, faith-based organizations and charitable organizations that command $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 do the same.

Financial considerations, in fact, drove many of these organizations’ decisions to divest. We as a planet will cross that two degrees celsius “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 that our investment office is preparing 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 an assumption this is and how strange an assumption this is for an educational institution like Cornell to be making.

Prof. Robert Howarth, ecology and evolutionary biology
Prof. David Shalloway, molecular biology and genetics
Jeffrey Bergfalk grad
Emma Johnston ’16

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