Stanford’s New School of Sustainability Is a Gift to Fossil Fuel Companies

Stanford’s New School of Sustainability Is a Gift to Fossil Fuel Companies

Stanford’s New School of Sustainability Is a Gift to Fossil Fuel Companies

The university seems set to replicate the mistakes of past climate research: soliciting oil and gas funding, while paying lip service to environmental justice.


This summer, Stanford University will officially launch its new Doerr School of Sustainability with the help of a record-breaking $1.1 billion gift from John and Ann Doerr. According to the Doerrs, who amassed their wealth in venture capital, the new school reflects a “bold” commitment to tackle humanity’s greatest challenge. And yet Stanford seems set to replicate the mistakes of past climate research: inviting conflicts of interest by soliciting fossil fuel funding, paying lip service to environmental justice, and forcing a dated and narrow-minded vision of “objective” climate work.

The launch of the Doerr School of Sustainability is, ironically, the culmination of student calls for Stanford to prioritize work on the climate crisis, and follows in the footsteps of the Columbia Climate School launched last year. Stanford’s announcement drew particular attention; Rhe Doerrs’ gift was the largest single donation dedicated to climate and sustainability in higher education, and the second-largest donation ever made to an American university. Despite the Doerrs’ sizable investment toward “solving the most complex problems in climate and sustainability,” the school’s incoming dean, Arun Majumdar, told the New York Times that the Doerr School of Sustainability would accept funding from and partner with fossil fuel companies. Majumdar’s day-one declaration summarily rejects demands by youth activists, students, climate advocates, and a growing body of academics who have fought to limit industry obstruction of climate solutions.

At the time of publication, almost 700 Stanford students, alumni, faculty and staff have signed an open letter calling for the Doerr School to refuse fossil fuel funds. The letter cited a survey of graduate students in Stanford’s existing School of Earth that ranked refusing funding from polluting industries such as fossil fuel companies as the most important measure for the new school to implement. When we, the authors, met with Majumdar, he admitted that he had not read the open letter, nor looked at the survey results.

Stanford is not the only institution reckoning with fossil fuel entanglements. At Harvard, students have cataloged fossil fuel interests in campus research centers and are calling for their rejection. At George Washington University, the Sunrise Movement campus chapter is campaigning to ban research funds from fossil fuel companies that have either been subpoenaed by Congress or are leading funders of climate misinformation, as well as phasing out donations from the remaining top 200 fossil fuel companies.

And it isn’t just students making the call. In April, more than 500 climate scientists and experts signed a letter with one demand: Keep fossil fuel funding out of academic research. They highlighted the “inherent conflict of interest” in climate-related research funded by the largest perpetrators of the climate crisis.

Stanford’s defense of the fossil fuel industry is not new. In fact, the Doerr School’s Majumdar defended accepting oil industry funds in a 2020 faculty debate over divestment. At that time, Majumdar and other faculty expressed concern that divesting the university endowment from fossil fuel stocks would cause faculty to lose research funding from those same industries. Despite the growing number of schools divesting their endowments from fossil fuels, Stanford has remained staunchly opposed to divestment, to the point of inspiring litigation.

The Precourt Institute for Energy that Majundar formerly co-led was named for lead donor Jay Precourt, CEO of an oil refining and transportation company. Majundar also maintains the status of senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative research institute whose affiliation with Stanford has been criticized for decades, most recently for its role in spreading Covid-19 misinformation.

As The Stanford Daily noted, Majumdar continually leans on the refrain that the “gigaton” problem of climate change requires “gigaton” industries. And certainly, gigaton industries will need to change to avert deeper levels of the climate crisis they caused. But that doesn’t mean that those same industries should dictate the research agendas outlining how that change should occur.

The classic example, which Majunmdar likes to cite in defense of industry involvement in climate mitigation, is Ørsted. Once an oil and gas company, Ørsted transitioned its business model by 2017 and has since become the global leader in offshore wind production. In 2020, Ørsted was named the most sustainable company in the world, in part for its partnerships with academic research institutions working to conserve the Right Whale.

But to use Ørsted as a proxy for the oil and gas industry is a false comparison. As of 2017, Ørsted is no longer a fossil fuel company, and thus its interests no longer conflict with climate action. Further, Ørsted is a majority state-owned Danish company and is subject to much stricter regulations than US fossil fuel companies—demonstrating the critical importance of policies that constrain industry control of climate action.

Nor have oil and gas majors demonstrated that they plan to follow in Ørsted’s footsteps. BP, Shell, Exxon, Chevron, and other fossil fuel companies continue to mislead the public and their own shareholders on corporate commitments to sustainability. Peer-reviewed research published this year found that American oil and gas majors “continuously exhibit defensive attitudes to renewables investment and the need to shift from fossil fuels, explicitly stating ambitions to grow rather than reduce hydrocarbon production.” An Oil Change International report released in late May shows that the biggest eight oil companies have more than 200 expansion projects planned for the next three years. Eni, the only oil and gas major to disclose its investments, dedicated a paltry 1.75 percent of its total capital spending to renewable energy in 2019. By comparison, a study in Nature found that in order to avoid climate collapse, at least half of energy investments would need to be in clean energy by 2025.

The Doerr School will incorporate over a dozen fossil fuel-funded affiliate programs researching deep-sea oil exploration, hydraulic fracturing, and other methods of expanding oil reserves. One product of these programs: BP recently discovered a new cache containing 200 million barrels of oil using an algorithm developed by an alum of one of these programs, the Stanford Exploration Project. Another industry-funded program is the Stanford Natural Gas initiative, which gives its “sustaining members” (donors at a $250,000 per year level) seats on the governance board that has significant leverage to dictate research priorities.

Fossil fuel companies can also buy lobbying time hidden within the ivory tower. At the neutral sounding Energy Modeling Forum, an “affiliate” program allows corporations “closer professional interactions” with Stanford’s modelers as well as interaction with government agencies through the program for $20,000 annually. Past affiliates through the program include the American Petroleum Institute, BP, Chevron, Exxon and Schlumberger.

Then there’s the research itself. These centers produce complex scientific and economic research that is hard for non-academics to review critically. Stanford’s research ethics training, which is required for studies with human participants, warns that studies have shown that industry-sponsored research is much more likely to report positive outcomes than those funded with federal money. As Stanford PhD Ben Franta has noted, the fossil fuel industry has made a clear progression from spreading climate denial with bad science to spreading climate delay with economic policy modeling laden with variables designed for industry self-preservation.

Accepting fossil fuel money not only gives undeserved credibility to industries that have lied to the public and fought sound climate science for decades; it also undermines Stanford’s academic integrity and independence, and risks its reputation in the eyes of students, faculty, policy-makers, and the public.

The fossil fuel industry is also one of the worst perpetrators of environmental injustice. In its “Fumes Across the Fence-Lines” report, the NAACP found that Black people in the United States are 75 percent more likely to live near toxic oil and gas facilities. At the international stage, Indigenous delegations at the latest United Nations climate negotiations protested the influence of oil giants—including the fact that the fossil fuel industry had a larger delegation than any individual country, and that many Indigenous peoples were excluded altogether.

Recognizing the pattern of exclusion, exploitation, and disproportionate harms in communities of color, Indigenous communities, and poor communities around the world, Stanford students and staff have repeatedly called for environmental justice to be centered in research and coursework.

Stanford would not be the first institution to do this. Last year, the University of California Berkeley successfully completed its Climate Equity and Environmental Justice cluster hire. Berkeley’s Division of Social Sciences dean hit the nail on the head: “We need to draw on a much wider range of intellectual sources than we traditionally have.” Berkeley is planning to follow this pioneering position with new hires focusing on “Native American and Indigenous People, Anti-Black Racism and Social Inclusion, Latinx and Democracy, Artificial Intelligence and Inequality and Understanding (Non) Citizenship.”

Across the Bay, the designers of the Doerr School show no comparable interest in environmental justice. In fact, environmental justice didn’t even make the cut for one of the eight areas of academic focus for the new school. This despite the dire need for environmental justice to achieve the “solutions to advance a more equitable, sustainable planet” that Doerr donor Angela Filo laid out for the school.

One of the major promises of the Doerr School is a massive faculty hiring process—something akin to Berkeley’s. And yet, according to a campus-wide environmental justice working group composed primarily of students and lecturers without tenure, just one of 11 finalists for a recent “cluster hire” for “sustainable development and environmental justice” self-identified as an environmental justice scholar, despite widespread campus support for just such an emphasis.

The working group also called for the creation of an environmental justice department, but the best the Doerr School has been willing to do is include environmental justice as one of four new “initiatives” within the new Institute for Sustainable Societies. As a university, Stanford’s treatment of environmental justice matters both for the scholarship it produces and the training it provides young people. Right now, Stanford is failing both.

Instead of focusing on the desperate need for environmental justice and other qualitative and social science scholars, the Doerr School press embodies a vision of interdisciplinary sustainability work that features science, economics, and the launching of a very Silicon Valley “sustainability accelerator” for policy and technology solutions, reminiscent of Doerr’s venture capital background.

The misguided nature of this approach to sustainability is further demonstrated through Majumdar’s statement that the Doerr School will not go into the “political arena.” Majumdar’s proclamation that the Doerr School would remain politically neutral flatly ignores the political implications and climate change consequences of major research institutions’ accepting funding from a highly political fossil fuel industry.

Separating climate research from the political arena is impossible. Indeed, science and its usage has always been political. What scientists choose to study, how they present it, and whose credibility they choose to uphold with their own, has vast political consequences. Companies often use their affiliations with academia to project clout, and to distract attention away from systemic changes that threaten their profit margins.

Lending Stanford’s name to fossil fuels’ political activities provides tacit endorsement. And in the halls of statehouses, fossil fuel companies are not advocating for advanced battery technologies, as Majumdar implies. Rather, they are doubling down on dirty energy and happily accepting trillions of dollars in government subsidies to boot. The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that 70 percent of all energy-related subsidies are awarded to fossil fuels and only 20 percent to renewable energy.

The commitment to avoiding the political arena is also contradictory for a sustainability school that is supposed to be interdisciplinary. Indeed, the key takeaway of the most recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is that while we have the technology available to cut emissions, political will stands in the way. For the first time in its history, the IPCC report includes a chapter on social science barriers. Rather than being a challenge of individual action or individual belief, as fossil fuel companies would have us believe, the “political will” hurdle has been intentionally created by fossil fuel interests.

Let us be clear: The fight for a livable climate is no longer about convincing the public or even our institutions that climate change is a reality. The majority of Americans already believe in climate change, are alarmed by the climate change impacts they are seeing materialize, and have demonstrated a clear desire to phase out fossil fuel production and use. Indeed, as the fossil fuel industry is finally facing defeat in its decades-long misinformation campaign to foster public mistrust of climate science, companies are doubling down on the battle for our institutions: political, economic, and, yes, academic.

Given that a total of $1.7 billion has been committed to the Doerr School, we call on Stanford to use the extraordinary gift in an appropriately transformative way that can meet the moment of interlocking climate and planetary crises. Stanford has the opportunity to be a model of fossil-free climate research that nourishes interdisciplinary and environmental justice scholarship to inform the just transition.

The consequences of Stanford’s use of these funds will be felt not just at Stanford but everywhere. Stanford climate scholars are well represented in the Biden administration and the IPCC, as well as state governments and other big players. They are poised to inform decisions that will affect communities around the globe and generations to come.

With the $1.7 billion granted to an institution already flush with resources, it is hard not to see the Doerr School’s choice to uphold fossil fuel interests while avoiding advocacy about the climate the fossil fuel industry has wreaked as proof of the influence of oil money. We call on Stanford, and the Doerrs, to make a truly bold commitment to climate and environmental justice progress—fossil free.

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