Op Ed-Cornell Can Lead on Carbon Neutrality

Urging Cornell to divest, faculty senate awaits Skorton’s response...

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Students and faculty members gather after Cornell Faculty Senate’s Dec. 11 vote for resolution to divest from 200 fossil fuel companies.
Students and faculty members gather after Cornell Faculty Senate’s Dec. 11 vote for resolution to divest from 200 fossil fuel companies.

By Stephen Ellner and and Robert Strichartz via The Ithaca Journal "Guest-Viewpoint", 1/29/14

On Dec. 11, the Cornell Faculty Senate voted overwhelmingly for a resolution asking Cornell to achieve carbon neutrality by 2035 and simultaneously divest its stocks in the 200 companies with the largest reserves of fossil fuels. This was a resounding victory for a common-sense approach to leading the world away from its “business-as-usual” attitude to the looming threat of global warming.

Negative effects of global warming are already with us, but things can get a lot worse. The best scientific estimates are that a temperature increase of more than 2 degrees Centigrade is likely to cause catastrophic and perhaps irreversible environmental changes. Burning even half of the already-discovered fossil fuel reserves creates a high risk of this almost suicidal result. Yet fossil fuel companies are still exploring for even more oil, gas and coal.

It is not too late to avoid this catastrophe, but only if we act now and act decisively. This is what the Cornell Faculty Senate resolution is trying to promote. There is a national movement, launched by 350.org, to get colleges and universities to divest from fossil fuel companies. The Cornell faculty took a leadership stand in this movement, and its resolution is a model for other schools.

The Cornell Student Assembly passed its own resolution calling for divestment and accelerated carbon neutrality in spring 2013, with encouragement from the student group KyotoNow!; however, Cornell’s President David Skorton found that resolution to be impractical and too costly.

The faculty resolution takes into account the concerns of Skorton and the Cornell investment office. It calls for a gradual divestment plan that is feasible without any significant financial penalties. Cornell has already committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. Advancing the target to 2035 may be difficult and require new fundraising, but we are confident that many alumni and friends would contribute to making Cornell a leader in climate-change reversal.

Some people have questioned whether the divestment movement has any chance of influencing gigantic fossil-fuel corporations. Indeed, the total investment of all colleges and universities in these companies is relatively small. But the real target of the movement is public opinion. We should not underestimate the social impact of a wave of divestment.

Politicians in the U.S. and abroad are not acting responsibly. Cornell and other educational institutions have a duty to educate the public by making it clear where we stand. Sometimes this requires dramatic and symbolic actions, and in this case the imperative to do so is clear. We call upon the president and trustees of Cornell to endorse the Faculty Senate resolution and begin work to implement it.

Ellner and Strichartz are Cornell faculty members and two sponsors of the resolution.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.