Op Ed: Divestment: The Folly of Dismissing Symbolism

David Beavers argues that we shouldn't be dismissive of the symbolic act of divestment...

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By David Beavers, via the Cornell Daily Sun, 05/05/14

To the Editor:

Re: “University: Divestment Will Have Minimal Impact,” News, April 9.

From fossil fuels to military occupation of Palestine, divestment has received its share of attention this spring. Now, with the innocuous name “Carbon Neutrality and Divestment,” a University Assembly resolution up for vote Tuesday seeks to dismiss divestment as “essentially … symbolic.”

The resolution is correct to label divestment as symbolic, but is frustratingly simplistic in using this label dismissively. To dismiss symbolism is a grave injustice — one that demonstrates an unapologetic lack of historical and scientific awareness.

The resolution claims that “as a symbolic act [divestment] does not rise to the level where a constraint should be levied on the investments contained in Cornell’s endowment.” Chief Investment Officer A.J. Edwards has stated that Cornell’s investments in the energy sector make up about 0.048 percent of market capitalization of that sector, and therefore divesting would have little effect on fossil fuel companies themselves. I don’t doubt Edwards’ analysis, but some perspective is key. Based on a conservative estimate, Cornell’s greenhouse gas emissions account for roughly 0.0008 percent of global emissions. That’s 100 times less. And yet, we’ve spent nearly $200 million since 2000 on carbon neutrality projects. Given Cornell’s relative influence as investor and as emitter, why is the former considered symbolic and dismissed while the latter is not?

This is obviously not a statement against carbon neutrality. Rather, it’s an affirmation that both divestment and carbon neutrality have power only in their ability to inspire similar actions elsewhere — both are essentially symbolic.

In fact, divestment and carbon neutrality are inseparable. Only once we’ve cleaned up our campus and our endowment can we call ourselves carbon neutral. To do one without the other — to make the statement that we stand for a fossil-free future on our campus while continuing to invest millions in the financial viability of the fossil fuel industry — is simply hypocritical.

The resolution claims that “educating students and conducting world-class research in the areas of carbon neutrality and sustainability will be far more beneficial” than divestment. But achieving carbon neutrality while maintaining investments in fossil fuels is not “educating students.” It’s justifying hypocrisy to them. It’s teaching that integrity and ethics can be sacrificed if they’re inconvenient to maintain, or if doing so comes with a profit. And all our world-class research can’t achieve its full potential if politics continues to lie upstream, blocking its implementation. We don’t just need a technological or scientific solution to climate change; we also need a political one.

Perhaps most unfortunately, dismissing symbolism is failing to appreciate its great power. Had Cornell faculty, staff, and students been dismissive of symbolism in 1985, when we sparked a national divestment movement, how many more years of Apartheid might there have been in South Africa?

I ask our representatives in the UA to keep the science in mind when considering this resolution.

Namely, global emissions are on pace to cause sea level rise that will put 91 percent of New Orleans, 18 percent of Miami, and seven percent of New York City under water. They’re on pace to displace some 3.7 million Americans living within one meter of high tide. They’re on pace to reduce global grain yields by 20 percent.

Now ask yourself if we should be dismissive of a symbolic act with a history of achieving real political results.

David Beavers ’14

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