From Stanford and Brown Universities to Imperial College London and the University of Toronto, students at almost a dozen campuses around the world took action last week to push their universities to ban fossil fuel industry funding for climate research. This week of action was the latest outgrowth of the Fossil Free Research movement, which has spurred public discourse after Princeton pledged to divest its endowment and reject fossil fuel money. It also comes in the wake of reports that a record number of fossil fuel industry lobbyists flooded international climate talks at COP27, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, bringing the specter of the industry’s protracted role in climate denial into clear view on the global stage. Hundreds of students participated in Fossil Free Research actions across the US, the UK, and Canada.
As one of the lead organizers of the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and Fossil Free Research campaigns, I am certain that taking action against the influence of Big Oil money on research is urgently needed for a just, rapid energy transition. Last week, Chelsey Gilchrist, a fellow Fossil Free Research organizer and student at Ohio State University who dropped a banner from the campus’s main library, described the campaign as intuitive as well as urgent. “For Ohio specifically, where coal and oil have been the center of political bribery, public health hazards, and economic injustices, the university’s association to fossil fuel companies is a sick form of mockery to the state it represents,” said Gilchrist.
Just two weeks ago, economists at Columbia University published a study finding that fossil fuel industry-funded research centers produce reports more favorable towards natural gas. The slant is so strong, the study found, that the magnitude of such support for natural gas including at MIT, Columbia, and Stanford was indistinguishable from that of major industry trade associations. And only last week, The Boston Globe reported that a study on the viability of so-called green hydrogen from researchers at UMass Lowell was funded by natural gas industry interests that would benefit from the study’s outcome.
Crucially, this industry-favorable skew can have ripple effects beyond the academic sphere. Such outcomes can dangerously shape public understanding and ultimately, policy on climate change. With this reality and lessons from the fossil fuel divestment movement in mind, students are mobilizing in record time and in growing numbers. “This international coordinated action is extraordinarily significant in that it represents a shared voice, frustration, and hope for climate justice in academia,” said Akaraseth Puranasamriddhi, a philosophy student working toward a doctorate at the University of Oxford. United by a determination to leverage their proximity to some of the world’s most reputed academic institutions, they are working to expose and transform funding norms that compromise the honest production of climate knowledge.
George Washington University: Pushing for University Climate Leadership Amid Governmental Failure
With T-shirts that read “No More Fossil Fuel Money” and pizza, they came well-prepared. Last Monday, nine students at George Washington University occupied the main office of the Regulatory Studies Center for 12 hours to help kick off the international days of action.
The center, targeted by students in a previous action for Fossil Free Research last spring, has taken at least $6 million from ExxonMobil and far-right charitable organizations heavily associated with climate denialism, including the Koch Family Foundation, Searle Freedom Trust, and Sarah Scaife Foundation. The center provides among the most salient examples of how industry-funded research can support a politics antithetical to climate action. For instance, the Trump administration EPA invoked center research in lowering its estimate of the social harms of carbon emissions in environmental regulatory decision-making.
For Bella Kumar, hub coordinator of Sunrise GW, the recent midterms crystallized the desire to hold the Center accountable. “Our government has failed to deliver on climate change and our representatives are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry, and we know it,” said Kumar, who also expressed frustration with the university’s inaction. “The overall university reaction was that 12 hours spent sitting in the RSC was a much worse act than 12 years of climate denial and deregulatory suggestion.”
With a Republican majority in the House, it will be difficult to pass major climate legislation. And the Inflation Reduction Act, which allotted historic spending on renewable energy, remains dwarfed by national military spending. Effective implementation—and with it, the United States’ ability to meet its Paris Agreement goals—may also depend on continued Democratic Executive control.
This uncertainty makes a focus on academic climate leadership more crucial in Kumar’s eyes. “Universities occupy a unique space in their ability to vastly alter the social license of an industry through research. Demanding Fossil Free Research is not only giving us the opportunity to take back our institutions, but setting standards for our academic freedom and our futures.”
University of Cambridge: Bringing Academic Integrity and Freedom to the Fore
Outside of the university’s Department of Earth Sciences, more than 50 students at the University of Cambridge rallied in support of a Fossil Free Research policy. “The seas are rising, so are we, but Cambridge is greenwashing Shell and BP!” Their peers at Oxford University and Imperial College London dropped banners with similar messages.
Earlier this fall, the University of Cambridge postponed a vote on a motion put forward by 84 academics for the adoption of a Fossil Free Research policy, which came in response to student and community activism. Last spring, students occupied the university’s BP Institute to protest the university’s research partnerships and acceptance of sponsorship from oil and gas majors, as well as oilfield services giant Schlumberger, for crucial climate research. Following the occupation, the university renamed the BP Institute in what students branded a crucial but radically inadequate step, given that the name change did not entail any severing of financial ties. For student campaigners, the rally responded directly to this inaction.
“If a tobacco company funds research on the reduction of tobacco usage, few would disagree that there is a fundamental conflict of interest between the academics’ research and the tobacco company,” said Mia Eldor-Levy, an organizer with Cambridge Climate Justice. Eldor-Levy. From the University of Cambridge to COP27, she said, “the same companies responsible for over 70 percent of global industrial greenhouse gas emissions in recent decades are infiltrating climate spaces in an attempt to greenwash us into thinking that they will change and be a part of the solution.”
Harvard: Rejecting a Faustian Bargain in Favor of a Fossil Free Future
As a first-year student, Harmony Fisher arrived on campus in September expecting Harvard to act on the robust commitment to climate action that the school’s rhetoric and reputation suggested. She was quickly disappointed. Less than a month after Harvard and MIT students shut down an ExxonMobil recruiting event, she joined nearly 20 of her peers with the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign last week in occupying Massachusetts Hall, the offices of President Lawrence Bacow and Provost Alan Garber, who oversees university research policy.
“Never before have we needed to raise our voices so urgently. A 1.5-degree limit on planetary warming is nearly out of sight and yet we as students still must demand that our university dissociate from the corporations driving this inexcusable, irrevocable destruction,” she said. “How can we be proud to bear our university’s name as students and future alumni if this same name and the research it produces are stained by Big Oil’s influence?”
During the occupation, we called on Harvard to address funding of premier climate policy programs such as the Kennedy School’s Environment and Natural Resources Program by companies including BP and Shell. Fossil fuel industry sponsors of the university’s climate research expect that these relationships will provide a return on investment, whether through the material rewards of research outcomes more favorable to industry’s bottom line or reputation rewards of being able to tout such partnerships. In effect, Harvard makes a Faustian bargain in accepting funding from an industry that has sought to silence its own academics.
Many universities remain slow to act. The University of Toronto last month said that it had delivered on its 2021 pledge to divest from fossil fuels, yet has not pledged to prohibit fossil fuel industry research partnerships. Student activists like Erin Mackey of Climate Justice University of Toronto consider this deeply hypocritical. Last fall in a historic win for divestment activists, Harvard University finally pledged to divest its $53 billion endowment after a decade of tireless activism. Whether students will face another decade of intransigence from places like Harvard or Stanford amid continuing uproar over its new Doerr School of Sustainability’s taking industry funding remains to be seen.
What is clear, however, is that students refuse to wait around for universities to act of their own volition. “I hope this collective effort encourages more students, academic experts, and staff globally to join our movement and take action, as well as urges universities to immediately review their policies on research funding and donations related to fossil fuels,” said Puranasamriddhi.