As student organizers, we have seen the power of divestment play out in helping secure historic commitments from our universities, including the world’s wealthiest school, Harvard, to separate their endowments from the corporations responsible for the climate degradation.
Yet even as our universities have taken a crucial step towards climate leadership, they continue to engage in a repugnant hypocrisy that undermines such progress: raising funds from fossil fuels for the essential climate change research on which our future. To end our universities’ sponsorship of a deadly grassroots business model once and for all, we need a new strategy to expose and dismantle these toxic ties by calling for fossil-free climate research.
First, it is a call to end our universities’ role in greenwashing industry, allowing oil and gas majors to put their mark on seemingly credible academic research around an energy transition. Second, it is a call to protect the integrity of such research, given established patterns of corporate vested interests that lead to skewed research results. Third, and perhaps most critical, is a call to stop the fossil fuel industry from co-opting the policy-making process and preventing the just and urgent transition to renewable energy.
Higher education plays a key role in translating the political ambitions of the fossil fuel industry into ostensibly objective economic expertise used to inform public policy. Fossil fuel companies and the network of right-wing organizations funding their concerted climate denial and delay campaigns, which sociologist Robert Brulle calls the climate change counter-movement, are teaming up with academic research that shapes thinking around an energy transition to strengthen their lobbying in favor of a weak climate policy that preserves their profits.
An example is the Center for Regulatory Studies at George Washington University. Equipped with millions of dollars from organizations like ExxonMobil and the Charles Koch Foundation, the RSC crafts economic arguments that deflate the negative economic impacts of fossil fuel emissions. These arguments are published in journal articles and submitted as public comments to regulators. Invoking the credibility of the GW name, the RSC research therefore cites industry-funded statisticians, established climate deniers and allied economic consultants. In 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency cited the work of RSC affiliates in its decision to drastically reduce the figure used to quantify social harm from carbon emissions in environmental regulations.
The RSC is just the tip of the iceberg. Various other centers, including the MIT Energy Initiative, the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, and the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, are also heavily influenced by fossil fuel money and interests.
That’s why we’ve organized across campuses and continents to begin decoupling academic climate research from the misdeeds of the fossil fuel industry. Most recently, Fossil Free Research student coordinators launched a public letter with over 500 signatures from leading academics, climate experts and academics, primarily from the US and UK, calling on their universities to lead the way in defense of fossil-free energy. climate research. Meanwhile, Sunrise GW has collected more than 1,000 signatures from GW community members for fossil-free climate research, secured pledges from 50 professors to throw away fossil fuel research money, and is pushing university centers and institutes to adopt the same commitment. Organizations ranging from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard to Oxford and Cambridge Climate Justice campaigns have released reports documenting the extent of the fossil fuel industry’s infiltration of academic research, and Extinction Rebellion Cambridge has taken action. direct denunciations of the university’s cozy relationship with oil services giant Schlumberger. .
For any campaign or individual looking to champion this cause, there are some clear first steps. First, find colleagues and community members willing to work together to hold your institution accountable. Second, do your research: Start with publicly available resources such as university tax returns, research websites and publications, and fossil fuel company reports to identify and expose fuel research links. fossils. Third, define your tactics to put your university into action. The Fossil Free Research Letter – which is now open for new signatures – provides a useful platform for these efforts by identifying faculty supporters and providing a clear message to convey to your administration.
And remember, this isn’t a campus-only campaign. Many research foundations, think tanks, and academic publications also choose to conduct or publish fossil fuel-funded climate change research. Their rejection of such money and research could prove extremely powerful.
With the divestment gains by far, we need to channel the momentum around institutional climate accountability to ensure our universities no longer serve as tools to suppress the climate politics needed to ensure a livable future. By uniting as an international coalition of students, faculty, alumni and others dedicated to this common cause, we cannot fail.