The Brower Youth Awards annually highlight the most impactful environmental youth leaders from across North America. Award recipients undergo a rigorous application review process and represent the most creative, young environmental leaders of today. We were delighted to hear that longtime StudentNation writer Ilana Cohen was a recipient of the 2022 Brower Award.
In 2018, seeing traditional political institutions’ failure to take bold climate action, Ilana co-founded the New York City chapter of the national youth climate justice coalition Zero Hour and organized one of the nation’s first Youth Climate Marches. Shortly after, as a first-year student at Harvard University, she helped relaunch the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign, which secured a historic victory last fall when the university pledged to divest its $53 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Ilana, 22, has since co-founded Fossil Free Research, an international grassroots campaign uniting students, academics, and experts against the toxic influence of Big Oil money on climate change research. The campaign aims to accelerate a just energy transition by protecting the integrity and academic freedom of researchers as their work ultimately influences the climate discourse and policy. Already, Fossil Free Research has published an open letter signed by more than 750 academics endorsing its call, staged an international direct action to hold major universities accountable, and formed a coalition to coordinate efforts across college campuses.
Ilana sent us her acceptance speech, which she delivered in-person at a ceremony in San Francisco on October 18.
I received this award for my work helping win divestment at Harvard. Last fall, when Harvard announced it would divest its $53 billion endowment, my peers and I were ecstatic. Three years after relaunching the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign, we had done everything imaginable—petitioned the administration, written searing op-eds, staged mock oil spills, even gone viral risking arrest storming the football field at half-time of the 2019 Harvard-Yale game and filed a legal complaint with the state attorney general—before Harvard capitulated and opened the divestment floodgates. In the next two months alone, a dozen major institutions followed suit. The win and its ripple effects felt like a vindication of student and grassroots activist power.
But after the celebration, we realized this first step was not enough. While Harvard was moving to make its endowment fossil free, it was also refusing to address the numerous other ways in which it leverages its prestige and resources to prop up the fossil fuel industry—most alarming and insidiously, by letting the industry sponsor and collaborate on climate research.
This isn’t just a Harvard problem; it’s true of many universities, including those pledging divestment and climate action. For instance, fossil fuel money flows into energy research at Cambridge and Oxford Universities, Columbia University’s Climate School, MIT’s Energy Institute, and Stanford’s new Doerr School of Sustainability.
There’s a long and well-documented history of powerful industries corrupting research at odds with their core business models. That’s why numerous public health institutions refuse research money from tobacco companies. The same intractable conflict of interest exists between research that aims at rapid societal decarbonization and funding from fossil fuel companies, who instead of aligning with Paris Agreement goals are making hollow net-zero pledges and engaging in climate subterfuge. The issue isn’t just that university climate research partnerships help greenwash these companies’ reputations. It’s that such partnerships threaten the integrity of public discourse and policy on climate change. When those who want to delay a real energy transition can cite fossil fuel-funded research from George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center suggesting a lower estimate of the social cost of carbon, the potential for false solutions to abound is immense.
How can any university claim to be a credible partner in climate action, much less a climate leader, while handing access to top climate research over to companies that have distorted public understanding of such research, weaponized pseudo-science, and sought to silence their critics? The answer is simple: a university can’t and it shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Every moment that fossil fuel companies remain entangled in climate research and academia makes our window for achieving a just transition narrower.
That’s why around the world, students, academics, and community members are demanding a ban on fossil fuel industry funding for climate research. Just weeks ago, in a testament to our growing momentum, we won a first of its kind Fossil Free Research policy at Princeton.
I’m deeply grateful to Earth Island Institute for their support of me and Fossil Free Research. But most of all, I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here today to invite you all to join me in this movement. Join me in holding Big Oil and our academic institutions accountable by calling out their deeply conflicted partnerships on climate research.