Op-Ed: Climate research funded by fossil fuel profits discredits universities and hurts the planet
Last month, more than 500 leading academics, climate experts and university affiliates called for an end to the fossil fuel industry funding university climate research. The reason: Faced with the climate crisis, the academic community must play a leading role in developing a renewable-energy future. Brokering financial partnerships with polluters prevents universities from fulfilling that goal and conducting conflict-free research.
The movement to get large institutions to divest from fossil fuel companies has gained enormous steam. Harvard — the world’s richest university — major philanthropic organization the Ford Foundation and the European Union’s biggest pension fund, ABP, all made divestment commitments since last fall. Universities in the U.S. and the United Kingdom should build on that momentum and once again take a firm stand against oil and gas companies, which are blocking the transition to clean energy to protect their profits.
To do so, the schools should ban funding from the fossil fuel industry for research in areas where it has a clear financial stake and history of spreading misinformation: climate change as well as environmental and energy science and policy.
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Despite the wealth of evidence showing that oil and gas drilling is responsible for most of the world’s destructive warming, the fossil fuel industry is ferociously fighting to keep its business model alive. It is lobbying against science-backed climate policy that would reduce the use of oil and gas; spreading misinformation, including climate science denial; and launching marketing campaigns — greenwashing — to suggest its business is based on sustainability even though it isn’t meaningfully reducing planet-warming emissions.
By funding academic research, especially around climate change, the fossil fuel industry diverts attention from these activities and their devastating consequences. University research partnerships allow these companies to misrepresent themselves as supporting the energy transition while actually doing what they can to slow it down.
Fossil fuel money also threatens academic independence. When funding comes from corporations with a fundamental conflict of interest, skewed research outcomes follow. That has been well documented in other industries including pharmaceuticals and tobacco. Common safeguards, such as having researchers self-report funding sources or having research institutions and publications publicly disclose their funding sources, often fail to mitigate the problem.
Yet such research partnerships funded by major oil companies abound. Take Stanford’s Global Climate & Energy Project, sponsored by Exxon Mobil and the world’s largest oil-field services company, Schlumberger; and MIT’s Energy Initiative, whose sponsors include Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Eni and ConocoPhillips. Cambridge University meanwhile hosts a Schlumberger research center.
Just as with divestment, it would be up to universities to decide what form the ban on fossil fuel funding would take. At a minimum, the ban should include funding for climate change, environmental and energy policy research from the world’s top 200 publicly traded coal, oil and gas companies and their subsidiaries. It should also include companies exploring for further fossil fuel reserves and investing in new fossil fuel supply projects, which ignore the International Energy Agency’s conclusion that we need to wean off fossil fuels to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
And universities should additionally reject climate-related research funding from organizations, such as Koch Industries and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, that have funded or otherwise supported climate change denial.
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It’s more crucial than ever that universities produce objective climate research and end the conflicts of interest posed by fossil fuel money.
The latest report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a failure to take rapid climate action globally will lead to catastrophic climate breakdown. This failure will undermine the possibility of a livable future and disproportionately harm the communities of color and poor communities most vulnerable to and least responsible for the climate crisis. Russia’s war on Ukraine has shaken the energy market by disrupting oil and gas imports, showing the instability of fossil fuels. It’s clear we need rapid, massive investment in renewable energy, and academic research has a vital role in informing this shift.
University administrations must also understand the grave disservice they do to the public by taking money that undermines academic independence. Even the mere perception of this independence being compromised is enough to threaten the credibility that universities bring to climate discourse. It limits their capacity for institutional climate action.
The funding ban we’re calling for is not unprecedented. Numerous public health and research institutions have rejected tobacco money because of the public health consequences of the industry’s products and its record of spreading disinformation about those effects. The fossil fuel industry is using the same disinformation tactics. How long will it take universities to reject the industry’s attack on higher education’s core values of rigorous research in the public interest?
Defenders of industry-academic partnerships might counter that at least some research proposals from fossil fuel companies are offered in good faith, and cash-strapped academia needs whatever funding it can get. But the industry cannot claim good faith in funding green research at schools while putting just a fraction of its own investments into renewable energy. And compromised research programs that prop up climate delay and denial are worse for the credibility of universities, and the security of our planet, than no programs at all.
Our universities can’t responsibly tackle the climate crisis unless and until they stop taking fossil fuel money for climate and energy-related research. Universities need to lead. This is their moment to choose between a just and sustainable world, or profit-driven fossil-fueled devastation.
Ilana Cohen is an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and Cambridge Climate Justice and a coordinator of the Fossil Free Research campaign. Michael E. Mann is a professor of atmospheric sciences and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book is “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet.”
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