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Debating Divestment

Should the University stop investing in fossil fuel companies?


One can debate the likely value and success of efforts by universities to call attention to the risks of continued fossil fuel use through divestment. However, the blanket assertion by Donna Wiesner Keene ’79 that “fossil fuel companies are the major funders of clean energy research” (Correspondence, March/April 2014)—justified only by the snarky comment “Duh”—is factually incorrect and adds nothing to civil discourse.

Utilities and energy companies more generally are notorious for their low rates of research spending relative to almost any other sector of the economy—much less than 1 percent versus more than 15 percent in more research-intensive sectors like pharmaceuticals. There is no publicly available information on how what they spend is allocated, but from what is known it is apparent that most fossil fuel industry research spending is related to resource development and not to what would commonly be considered “clean energy.” Consequently, Bill Gates and other major business leaders formed the American Energy Innovation Council several years ago to advocate a major increase in public funding for clean energy research. Many serious and independent financial analysts have begun pointing to the risks of stranded assets associated with continued investment in fossil fuel development at a time when climate policy is increasingly discussed.

Alan Miller ’71
Rockville, Maryland

President Skorton is correct in rejecting the Faculty Senate’s vote urging the University to divest from the top 200 fossil fuel-holding companies (From the Hill, March/ April 2014). Climate change is natural and ongoing. Global warming because of fossil fuel consumption is factually arguable. It either is or is not happening based on science, not popular voting.

One of the problems we have, which does not require a PhD in environmental education like I have to understand, is that science and politics should be separate. The mixing of the two just fouls things up. Intelligent people should remain skeptical about global warming based on scientific observations, even if (as I read) the qualified skeptics are a minority. Just look at how Galileo was penalized for his minority scientific theory that was later proven accurate. Conservation is always in order, but there is not enough evidence to warrant drastic changes in energy use that could harm our economy and lifestyle at this time.

Gerald Schneider ’61
Kensington, Maryland

It is common to derisively refer to people like me as “climate change deniers.” I do not deny, however, that humankind’s use of fossil fuels is contributing to increased release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere do result in higher heat retention from the sun. But who says that the current global temperature is the ideal temperature and that we must make all possible efforts to maintain it by reducing carbon dioxide emissions?

It has been colder in the past and warmer in the past. That has been the history of life on this planet. Life forms have adapted to those changing climate conditions, not tried to control the climate. Those life forms able to adapt survived. Don’t forget that the original life form on Earth was plant life, which depended on carbon dioxide and over time generated an oxygen-rich atmosphere that was toxic to some plant forms and led to animal life forms. A balance was then achieved, with animal life converting oxygen to carbon dioxide and plant life converting carbon dioxide to oxygen.

I strongly believe that we must adapt to changing climate rather than try to control it. The costs to worldwide standards of living because of severe reductions in the use of fossil fuels and conversion to much higher cost “clean” energy are too significant. China, India, Indonesia, and many Third World and developing countries will not pay that cost in lower living standards. The populations of these areas are so large that any significant effort by the West to curtail fossil fuels will be overwhelmed. Yes, in the longer term, alternative energy sources will become more cost-effective, but not in time to meet the climate change zealots dire “needs.” Adaptation may require relocation of people from coastal locations as sea levels rise and fertile areas may become arid—but current arid and cold areas may become fertile, and plant life will thrive in a higher carbon dioxide atmosphere. Humankind has proven resilient over its life history and will continue to survive in a changing climate.

One last thought: Dramatic population growth over the past fifty years has as much to do with increased carbon dioxide emissions as anything. We have probably reached a point where population control is as important as fossil fuel use.

David Hill ’62, BChemE ’63
Basking Ridge, New Jersey

Bouquets and Brickbats

Thank you, Bill Sternberg ’78 and Cornell Alumni Magazine for “The Sagan Files” (March/April 2014). The article is engaging, informative, and skillfully written. It made me wish I had taken the opportunity to learn from Dr. Sagan during my years at Cornell, realizing that our Cornell paths crossed only during my MS program, and I was engrossed in my own area of study, far afield from Dr. Sagan’s.

I fear that most college students, including those at most centers of academic excellence, are never exposed to the giants of the past except by accident. Your article brought Dr. Sagan back to life for me, and I will do my best to introduce him and Cornell to the many students I will be privileged to mentor in the years to come.

Thanks again for the great article and for reminding me of my privilege as a graduate of, and my indebtedness to, the finest institution of higher learning among the “billions and billions” of universities in our amazing universe.

Dr. Allan Lines ’63, MS ’69
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

At this past reunion, my 55th, a perception of mine was strongly reinforced: members of the Cornell administration have become increasingly accessible to students over the years. I recall the image of one young administrator, necktie loosened, singing along with the a capella groups that performed informally in the lobby of Goldwin Smith following the Saturday night Cornelliana concert at Bailey Hall. The prime mission of today’s administrators seems to be to get the students to have as successful an educational and living experience as possible. During my undergraduate days, although I’m sure that the administrators were equally dedicated, they were more remote figures.

My guess is that the accessibility of President David Skorton, including his living in a dormitory for a week early each academic year, has had something to do with setting the tone for that trend.

George Ubogy ’58
Greenwich, Connecticut

The jab by Jon Anderson ’71 at Fox, that news isn’t “fair and balanced” if you have to keep saying it is, was amusing (Correspondence, March/April 2014). Unfortunately, those of us to whom respect for individual liberty is the hallmark of civilized society have had to become accustomed to snide, sneering, and downright hostile items woven among the heartwarming pieces in CAM that remind us fondly of our years at Cornell. It’s bad enough that intelligent, hard-working students are apparently being taught that they can obtain the knowledge necessary to control and design the actions of equally free individuals; one also wonders where they get the moral authority to do so.

I recently retired, but came across a folder of readings I used to assign to my graduate class in social science. Among them was Friedrich Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” Anyone who suspects that the application of force over individuals’ lives is retrogressive, not (as it is misleadingly called) progressive, might find this article a good starting point.

John Egger ’66, MEng ’68
Professor Emeritus of Economics
Towson University, Towson, Marylan

The March/April 2014 issue brims over with great articles. I write, however, to object fervently to the obituary on page 23. Despite the tiny disclaimer that this is indeed a “paid memorial notice,” one assumes easily that it is an article.

Since when has the magazine acquiesced to paid obituaries? As a Cornellian who proudly stands by our founder’s motto, I find their inclusion counter to the non-sectarianism that Ezra held paramount. The purpose of the Alumni Deaths page is that we are all listed as Cornellians and—for the most part—all Cornellians are created equal, unless there is need of a magazine-newsworthy article. The adoption of paid obituaries opens floodgates where money buys space at a difficult family time. That feels counter to our motto and very un-Cornell.

Alice Katz Berglas ’66, BA ’79
New York, New York

Ed. Note: Paid memorial notices have always been available in CAM, although we have never promoted or encouraged them. In this case, we were contacted by a family member who felt strongly about publishing a memorial and was willing to pay the full advertising rate for the space.

Resisting Resister

The subhead on the article “Home Front” (March/April 2014) is significantly flawed. It states: “An excerpt from Resister captures a crucial moment in the antiwar movement.” This statement assumes that “draft resistance” and “antiwar protest” were synonymous. They most definitely were not.

In the fall of 1966, I was treasurer of Students for a Constructive Foreign Policy. It was my group’s premise that only the creation of a majority in opposition could bring the Vietnam War to a close. Our intent was to reach the open-minded and convince them that the American government had gotten things all wrong. I can’t speak for the armchair revolutionaries who attended the “ceremony” [where Bruce Dancis ’69 tore up his draft card], but for the antiwar movement, his action was a petty nuisance, not a crucial moment. From my perspective, this act was counterproductive—but I would be remiss not to thank Dancis for his work on the Spring Mobilization of April 15, 1967. That produced a cornerstone event of the best kind.

William Schneid ’69
Medford, New York

I am sure that Bruce Dancis feels his draft card burning and subsequent jail time were highly important to the SDS movement and the antiwar activities on Cornell’s campus in the Sixties. For all I know that may be true. I was there from 1969 to 1973, and it’s been forty years since I left. I remember being tear-gassed in Collegetown, but I don’t know whether it was related to antiwar protests, something to do with the Attica prison riots, or something else. The point is that it was a very long time ago. Why is Cornell so fixated on the antiwar movement of the Sixties and the takeover of Willard Straight Hall in 1969? Get over it and forget it.

Without trying to be too antagonistic, I would ask Mr. Dancis this question: What have you done since 1966? I would rather hear about what a young radical has achieved in today’s environment other than rehashing old stories of little import.

William C. Miller ’73
Fairfield, New Jersey

Sudden Impact

Earlier this year, I received a ballot for two alumni-elected members of the Board of Trustees. The questions posed to each candidate included the following sentence: “Describe your experience in engaging Cornellians in an impactful way.” Oh, please. Is the ridiculous phrase “in an impactful way” worthy of a university that “aspires to be one of the world’s ten most distinguished research universities”? Why not just say, “Describe your experience in getting alumni involved with the University”?

Felicia Nimue Ackerman ’68
Professor of Philosophy, Brown University,
Providence, Rhode Island