Climate research funded by polluters discredits universities

Last month, more than 500 leading academics, climate experts and university colleagues called for an end to fossil fuel industry funding for university climate research. Reason: In the face of the climate crisis, the academic community must take the lead in developing a renewable-energy future. The brokerage of financial partnerships with polluters prevents universities from meeting that goal and conducting conflict-free research.

The movement to separate large institutions from fossil fuel companies has gained enormous momentum. Harvard (the world’s richest university), the Ford Foundation, the leading philanthropic organization and the European Union’s largest pension fund, ABP, have all made divestment commitments since last fall. Universities in the United States and the United Kingdom must build on that momentum and once again take a tough stand against oil and gas companies who are stalling the transition to clean energy to protect their profits.

To do this, schools must ban funding from the fossil fuel industry for research in areas where it has a clear financial stake and a history of spreading misinformation: climate change as well as environmental and energy science and policy.

Despite a wealth of evidence that oil and gas drilling is responsible for much of the world’s catastrophic warming, the fossil fuel industry is fighting ferociously to keep its business model alive. It is lobbying against a science-backed climate policy that would reduce oil and gas use; spreading misinformation, including climate science denial; And launching a marketing campaign – Greenwashing – to suggest that its business is based on sustainability, even if it isn’t meaningfully reducing planet-warming emissions.

By funding academic research specifically around climate change, the fossil fuel industry diverts attention from these activities and their disastrous consequences. University research partnerships allow these companies to misrepresent themselves as supporting the energy transition, while actually doing what they can to slow it.

Academic freedom is also threatened by fossil fuel money. When funding comes from corporations with fundamental conflicts of interest, contrasting research results emerge. This has been well documented in other industries including pharmaceuticals and tobacco. Common safeguards, such as self-reporting funding sources to researchers or having research institutions and publications publicly disclose their funding sources, often fail to mitigate the problem.

Yet such research partnerships abound, funded by major oil companies. Take Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project, sponsored by Exxon Mobil and the world’s largest oil-field services company, Schlumberger; and MIT’s Energy Initiative, whose sponsors include Exxon, Chevron, Shell, Eni and ConocoPhillips. Meanwhile the University of Cambridge hosts a Schlumberger Research Centre.

As with disinvestment, it is up to the universities to decide what form the ban on fossil fuel funding will take. At a minimum, the ban must cover funding for climate change, environment and energy policy research from the world’s top 200 publicly traded coal, oil and gas companies and their subsidiaries. This should also include companies exploring further fossil fuel reserves and investing in new fossil fuel supply projects, ignoring the International Energy Agency’s conclusion that we need to use fossil fuels to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. needs to be shut down.

And universities should additionally decline climate-related research funding from organizations such as Koch Industries and the Sarah Schaff Foundation, which have funded or otherwise supported climate change denialism.

Our universities cannot tackle the climate crisis responsibly until they stop funding fossil fuels for climate and energy research. Universities need to take the lead. It is a moment for them to choose between an equitable and sustainable world, or a profit-driven fossil-fueled catastrophe.

Ilana Cohen is an organizer and coordinator of the Fossil Free Research Campaign with Fossil Fuel Dive at Harvard and Cambridge Climate Justice. Michael E. Mann is a professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. ©2022 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.

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