Princeton Activists Just Won a Historic Victory for Climate Research

Princeton Activists Just Won a Historic Victory for Climate Research

Princeton Activists Just Won a Historic Victory for Climate Research

After a decade of student organizing, Princeton made a pledge to divest its endowment and reject fossil fuel money. Will more universities follow?


On Thursday September 29, 2022, after more than nine years of student and alumni organizing, Princeton University finally announced that it will divest from fossil fuels. As the university had $1.7 billion currently invested in fossil fuels—and one of the largest endowments in the nation—this is a huge win for the Princeton community and the world.

In addition to fully divesting the endowment of fossil fuels, Princeton will also reject gifts and grants from 90 companies involved in the coal and tar sands sectors of the fossil fuel industry, including current research funders ExxonMobil, Syncrude, and Total E&P. This is a departure from typical divestment decisions. Dissociation has only ever been used twice before at Princeton: to combat apartheid in South Africa in 1987 and in protest of the Darfur genocide in Sudan in 2006.

This new policy is a pivotal step towards a fossil-free future for research. In the past five years alone, Princeton received $26 million in research funding from fossil fuel companies. Its decision to divest and dissociate will fundamentally remake how academia interacts with polluting corporations, and is a testament to the growing power of the Fossil Free Research movement.

Unlike divestment wins at Harvard, Columbia, and other universities, Princeton’s policy is the first in America to acknowledge Big Oil’s unethical presence in its climate research and investments. ExxonMobil specifically has significant influence at Stanford, MIT, UT Austin, and the Georgia Institute of Technology. But it’s not just Exxon. BP, Chevron, Shell, and other oil and gas giants are also deeply entrenched within university research around the country.

This decision would not have happened without Divest Princeton and its predecessor campaigns. Students strategized and protested between classes, alumni ensured that the movement continued over time, and 165 faculty and staff bravely signed the petition calling for full divestment. In February 2022, organizers filed a legal complaint with the New Jersey attorney general to compel Princeton to fully divest. Divestment became so popular that over 3,100 Princeton alumni, students, faculty, staff, and parents signed an open letter pledging no donations to Princeton until divestment, turning it into the second-largest petition in Princeton University history.

Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment—one of the country’s most influential energy research labs—is currently funded by ExxonMobil. The new fund, intended to fill the gap left by the impending dissociation, proves Princeton’s capacity to fund climate research while maintaining financial independence. Dissociating from ExxonMobil could shift research priorities, from carbon capture to renewable energy projects.

The new policy isn’t perfect: Princeton’s decision comes with caveats limiting the scope of the policy. First, the faculty report created to guide the decision recommended dissociating from companies with a history of climate disinformation. This proposal was ignored for being “too complicated.” Second, dissociation only involves companies with a certain amount of activity in thermal coal and tar sands, with oil and gas notably missing from the criteria. Finally, Princeton gave companies 90 days to “prove” that they don’t qualify for dissociation—a loophole waiting to be exploited. But, these are issues that can now be addressed in successive campaigns. 

A fossil-free future is only possible with fossil-free research that informs trustworthy climate decision-making. The implications of dubious funding reach into the underbelly of an institution’s merit, crippling the credibility of researchers and their universities. Furthermore, it opens a minefield of moral ambiguity for climate researchers, as relying on industry exposes them to possible breaches of academic integrity. For example, Princeton’s 2021 Net-Zero America Project, which aimed “to inform U.S. policy and investment decisions,” is partially funded by ExxonMobil and BP, opening questions of potential biases.

There are many cases where industry interference in research has influenced policy-making to weaken environmental standards and delay climate action—a calculated maneuver that results in the climate disasters we face today. The notion that climate research needs money from fossil fuels legitimizes a relationship stalling concrete climate solutions. Climate research deserves to be supported and financed without irreconcilable conflicts of interest.

While the cyclical nature of fossil fuel’s influence is daunting, Princeton’s students have shown that it can and must be dismantled. Across the country and abroad, the fight for fossil-free research races on. At Cambridge University, campaigns for fossil-free research and divestment await a momentous faculty vote for the creation of a fossil-free research policy. At Stanford, students are protesting fossil fuel donations to the new Doerr School of Sustainability. The growing number of fossil-free research campaigns around the globe means that companies with the most to lose from climate action might finally be stopped from funding climate research itself.

Timing could not be more of the essence. Uplifting shared victories between individual campaigns remains one of the most impactful tactics to build momentum for systemic change. Moreover, there is a point to campaign longevity, as huge climate wins like Princeton’s are the product of multigenerational student organizing and alumni support. Considering that $40 trillion has already divested from over 1500 institutions, fossil-free research is the next urgent objective.

For Princeton, the short-term goal is ensuring that the administration follows through with divestment and dissociation from all 90 companies listed—especially ExxonMobil. The next step is full dissociation: rejecting fossil fuel industry funding for all climate and energy research, and committing to transparency going forward. If not, BP will continue to fund and influence Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative, along with Koch funding for research that lacks critical transparency.

Holly Caggiano, a postdoctoral fellow at the partially ExxonMobil-funded Andlinger, is proud of this decision. “This never would have happened without bottom-up action from students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members. Princeton’s decision will send a powerful signal to other institutions facing the decision to divest or disassociate. I look forward to a future where climate researchers can pursue their work free from ethical dilemmas presented by fossil fuel funding.” As students, we do too.

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