Op Ed: Divestment: Keeping the Dialogue Alive

Two students provide their opinions on President Skorton's Op Ed piece on divestment...

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By Anna-Lisa Castle and Rebecca Macies via the Cornell Daily Sun, 4/21/13

This time last year, we were co-Presidents of KyotoNOW!. A year ago, when divestment from fossil fuels was just a whisper and only a few campuses had begun to mobilize, we sat in a café on campus and drafted what would become “Resolution 32: Toward a Responsible Endowment.” Since then, students have gathered support from thousands of their peers and alumni, filled the Memorial Room in support of Resolution 32 and banded together over 20 student organizations who have submitted letters to President David Skorton explaining why they believe Cornell should divest. We are proud to have engaged such a broad range of incredible allies and partners, including many members of the Student Assembly. That said, we want to make it clear that the this is bigger than any one person or organization; the divestment movement is more than a resolution. So while it is important for President Skorton to address the Cornell community through his Sun column last Monday, as students, activists and authors of Resolution 32, we would like to reinsert ourselves into this conversation that we started and have our chance to respond. We do not speak on behalf of KyotoNOW! nor the divestment movement; we speak only as individuals who have worked closely on this initiative.

In his column last week, President Skorton expressed his concerns about divestment from fossil fuels, including its effectiveness. He points to how divestment from South Africa was used to end apartheid, and that its success influenced the federal actions that pressured South Africa’s government to end the oppressive system and begin to make reparations. This statement only reinforces the use of divestment to influence federal and even international policy. Divestment has been shown to engage both companies and government officials who can create long-term systemic change through policy. As the fossil fuels divestment movement continues to build, it may become the catalyst the country and the world needs to curb our dependence on fossil fuels.

President Skorton also raises the point that divesting takes away the leverage that Cornell, as a shareholder, could use to advocate for change within these companies. He argues that if we remain invested, we can participate in shareholder advocacy to admonish the practices that we feel need to change, while praising examples of corporate responsibility. However, according to Cornell’s most recent STARS report, we have not filed any shareholder resolutions, nor have we submitted any letters that address social or environmental responsibility during the past three years — the entire lifespan of STARS reports. If it’s the advocacy route we’re hoping to preserve, we should recognize that it’s a path that the University has never taken before.

While the University has an obligation to consider the impacts of divestment on the endowment, the administration has yet to do so in any serious capacity. According to Chief Investment Officer Edwards, as of last week, no analysis had taken place to evaluate the feasibility of divestment from fossil fuels in any form. It seems that claims about feasibility have largely rested on the convenient comparison of our current portfolio to a 100 percent, immediately divested one. However, the resolution that the Student Assembly passed does not in fact call for full divestment immediately; we’re asking that the University take steps over the next seven years to align its investment practices with its ideals as an institution. As one commenter pointed out on Skorton’s column, some of the options that the University has ignored might include taking incremental steps toward an ethical endowment, putting pressure on third-party investment managers to come up with fossil fuel-free portfolios, committing to research low-risk divestment options and developing a long-term strategy that does not require pulling out of partnerships at a loss, but instead reinvesting those funds sustainably when they are released.

Anyone who says they can predict the future of the economy need not look beyond the past five years to see that there is no such thing as a safe bet; as more and more experts are pointing to the dangers of the “carbon bubble,” it’s becoming clear that long-term investment in fossil fuels is both financially and environmentally unsustainable. Carbon emission mitigation policies are quickly making fuel reserves unburnable and thus worthless, but as the The Guardian pointed out, investors are “betting on countries failing to adhere to legally binding carbon emission targets.” The University should not be betting on our collective failure and continued dependence on fossil fuels. As students and as young people, we also hope that the University is prepared to look further than just the “immediate foreseeable future” when making decisions on behalf of us all. If we wait to take action until fossil fuels cease to be profitable or to exist, we’ll have much bigger problems than maintaining the status quo: irreparable damage will have already been done to our communities and to our planet.

While we remain very concerned about our investments in fossil fuels, we are thrilled to see that the University has agreed on one component of our request and is now prepared to get serious about socially-responsible investment. We sincerely hope that this leads to something transparent and concrete, such as a formalized set of ethical guidelines and commitments for the Investment Office, and that we as a campus can look forward to updates on the progress of these efforts. We are grateful to the administration and the Cornell community for the receptiveness and respect they have shown thus far. We are, of course, as excited as President Skorton to keep this dialogue alive and continue to advance down a smart and responsible path toward an ethical endowment. President Skorton, when are you available to meet? There are thousands of us waiting outside your office.

Anna-Lisa Castle is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Rebecca Macies is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

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