Even after over a decade of campaigning urging universities to “divest” their endowment funds from fossil fuels, surprisingly little is known about just how much fossil fuel money flows to the nation’s top research institutions. Oil and gas giants including Chevron, Shell, Eni, Equinor, and ConocoPhillips fund premier climate and energy research initiatives at Harvard, MIT, and Columbia—where even the Climate School takes fossil fuel money. Right now, at Stanford, community members are rightly in uproar over the dean of the Doerr School of Sustainability deciding to accept fossil fuel money. Meanwhile, Princeton has maintained a long-standing research partnership with notorious climate denial and delay purveyor ExxonMobil and hosts a Carbon Mitigation Initiative sponsored by oil and gas giant BP. While more than 20 universities in the past year have pledged to stop investing their funds in fossil fuel stocks, getting them to stop taking donations has been a harder sell.
But on September 29, students and academics around the world won a historic victory when Princeton University committed not just to divest but also to disassociate from 90 fossil fuel companies, including the university’s long-standing research partners and world-infamous climate delay and denial giant ExxonMobil. This represents the first pledge among higher education institutions to restrict fossil fuel industry money for climate research—the first formal recognition that partnering with the companies driving climate breakdown to identify climate solutions is, in fact, an obvious conflict of interest. And coming amid a wave of Fossil Free Research activism, it reflects the growing power of student and academic campaigners seeking to free our institutions from undue and dangerous industry influence.
For those unfamiliar, the Fossil Free Research movement is an international effort to address Big Oil’s toxic influence on climate research. Building on the huge progress of the divestment movement, it officially launched this past April. The launch was marked by the release of an open letter now signed by 750 academics, including members of the National Academy of Sciences, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change authors, Nobel Prize recipients, university chancellors, and even the former president of Ireland. Only six months later, calls for Fossil Free Research are surging across countries.
Last week, students, faculty, and alumni at Stanford marched to protest the new Doerr School of Sustainability, which has compromised its core mission by welcoming fossil fuel industry funding. At the University of Cambridge, academics are preparing for a historic vote on whether to adopt what would be the most comprehensive Fossil Free Research policy at a major institution to date. Academics at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University are preparing for a similar vote, building directly on the legacy of leadership by public health institutions in ethical research funding.
Two decades ago, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, along with numerous other public health schools, decided to ban tobacco industry funding, in recognition that an industry whose core business model was predicated on community harm could not be a trustworthy partner in that harm’s resolution. It shouldn’t have taken universities this long to recognize that Big Oil funding presents the same problem when it comes to climate solutions research.
Just this month, amid news of historic floods in Pakistan and a deadly Atlantic hurricane season, internal memos and emails from oil and gas companies exposed the industry’s gross disregard for stated commitments to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. One email from a Shell employee specifically stated that Shell’s net-zero pledge “has nothing to do with our business plans.” Oil and gas companies’ insistence on continuing the business of planet-warming fuels, with comparatively small amounts spent on renewables, contradicts the International Energy Agency’s warning that we need to cease investment in new fossil fuel supply projects immediately. These companies are acting in bad faith when they claim to be supporting an energy transition—including when they cite their university partnerships as evidence of their good intentions.
Last spring, we argued that rich universities can and must lead the charge in adopting Fossil Free Research. Well, now we have the $200 million endowment of the Harvard Salata Institute and $1.1 billion endowment of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability—as well as Princeton’s plan to establish an alternative fund for climate and energy research—as proof that universities can find different ways to park their cash or solicit new funds. So now there is no excuse for other elite institutions. For any well-resourced university continuing to compromise climate research by accepting oil and gas money, a clear question arises: Which side are you on?
Ultimately, this is a society-wide issue. All universities and research institutes need increased access to ethical and transparent climate funding streams. That’s why we need greater government support and leadership from those more well-resourced universities, which have a unique responsibility to block oil and gas companies’ access to the production of climate knowledge.
Students and academics aren’t alone in thinking that universities must change their policies. Polling released by Data for Progress finds that a majority of U.S. voters agree that colleges and universities should refuse donations from fossil fuel companies to maintain unbiased research programs. At its core, the issue here really is that straightforward. Everyone is a stakeholder in the Fossil Free Research movement because the production of knowledge, discourse, and policy around climate change affects us all. As the climate crisis threatens our health, our homes, and every aspect of our futures, the fossil fuel industry’s attempts to influence the kinds of solutions researchers propose—long before those solutions even get debated on the political stage—are increasingly offensive.
As a climate scientist and student activist, we want to see our institutions become exemplars in fighting climate change and advancing a new ethics of research rooted in the public interest. The alternative is that they disgrace themselves defending the companies responsible for millions of deaths and unprecedented planetary harm.