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At this point in the Anthropocene, fossil-fuel interests have largely pivoted from outright denial to carefully crafted distortions as to how the industry can be counted on as a sincere collaborator.

That is, climate distortion is the new denial. It’s a necessary tactical shift when nearly two-thirds of Americans believe climate change exists and should be urgently addressed.

With that in mind, I’d like to explore whether academic institutions’ role as knowledge producers on topics under the epistemic umbrella of sustainability is compromised by fossil-fuel money.

The pursuit of sustainability in business, academia and the public sector alike has for nearly 35 years been guided by a definition via the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This same time frame saw the release of over half of global CO2 emissions since 1751, the vast majority coming from fossil fuels production and consumption.

The period also saw an expansion of fossil-fuel funding into academic research and philanthropy, in addition to shoddy and Orwellian front groups such as the Information Council for the Environment or the nearly forgotten Global Climate Coalition.

The standard case in favor of taking fossil-fuel money in academia goes something like this: Sure, Big Oil has shown consistent criminal disregard for human and planetary wellbeing, but the industry must be engaged in the pursuit of solutions. Fossil-fuel money helps academics conduct crucial climate research, so less money means less solutions.

What’s behind the research community’s sentiment? Cigarettes and smoking provide the most instructive example.

It’s something of the corrupted cousin of the capital markets equivalent: that fossil-fuel divestment is a seductive strategy but, given the structure of capital markets — if you sold shares, someone else will buy them — ultimately ineffective.

It’s a case made by Doerr School dean Arun Majumdar. It’s also a case made by plenty of prestigious academic institutions, from UC Berkeley to MIT. But a preponderance of the world’s leading climatologists and climate change researchers think this case “compromises universities’ basic institutional integrity,” according to an open letter signed earlier this year by nearly 750 academics. Meanwhile, a 2022 survey of grad students at Stanford’s own School of Earth found that “stopping accepting money from problematic/polluting industries” was the most important measure for the new school to implement.

Big Oil’s playbook

What’s behind the research community’s sentiment? Cigarettes and smoking provide the most instructive example, as Big Oil has followed much of the strategic playbook originally designed and funded by Big Tobacco. An important line in the script is to fund “credible” research and to forge associations between their brands and credible institutions. Did you know that more doctors smoke Camels?

Let’s stipulate that tobacco consumption is to lung cancer as fossil-fuel consumption is to climate change, at least causally. When a major tobacco company funds research on lung cancer, you’d have to deeply misunderstand the function of money to think they’re interested in a conclusion that, say, “Lung cancer risk decreases by not smoking cigarettes.” But a conclusion that smokers should receive more frequent CT scans is money well spent, as far as the industry’s interests are concerned.

Riffing off the Doerr School’s mission statement, oil companies understandably fund research to create a future where their business models can continue in perpetuity, or at least as long as the immediate need to abandon fossil fuels can be delayed.

That said, fossil-fuel funding directly for research at the Doerr School is different from philanthropic donations, where the ties between funder and recipient are more opaque. And it’s valuable territory, as a good propagandist knows that ambiguity is prime real estate for spin. Making associations with the newest highbrow sustainability school in the United States has to be one of the best brand burnishers on the market for an oil major.

Stanford is not the only elite research institution with a school focused on sustainability and climate. I checked in with my alma mater, Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, to get their view on this type of relationship.

The response came from an interdisciplinary hub formed in 2008 called the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, whose spokesperson told me it is “not receiving donations from fossil-fuel companies currently, and we consider it right for people to scrutinize any such donations carefully.” Were the school to decide to take fossil-fuel money, it would need to hold itself to the standard of the “Oxford Martin Principles … to only take funding from companies that are committed to both the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Mission imponderable

Back at Stanford, Majumdar has set a similar bar for the Doerr School, opening the door to companies “that want to diversify and be part of the solution,” admittedly more of a lazy marketer’s first-draft slogan than anything like a values statement, let alone a bar for entry. As it is, according to the Stanford Daily, Stanford University — the Doerr School’s mothership — currently has fossil-fuel partners that don’t come close to measuring up even to Majumdar’s low bar.

One can’t understand something their salary depends on them not understanding, to paraphrase Upton Sinclair. I can’t find a valid reason to trust an oil firm’s intentions for donating to a sustainability school.

It may be the case that we don’t know how to keep below 1.5 degrees Celsius without the carbon capture and storage touted by Big Oil as a climate solution And yes, we (civil society, elected government, private sector, etc.) need to engage the fossil-fuel industry to avert climate disaster. But is the ties between the Doerr School and the fossil-fuel sector really the type of relationship needed to realize the school’s mission?

In addition to the brand boost, fossil-fuel sponsorships are about talent recruitment for oil and gas companies. Stanford is ranked No. 1 for petroleum engineering, so there’s plenty of logic in fostering this relationship. But morals aside, is that even a good bet?

Imperial College London, for example, suspended its Petroleum Engineering and Petroleum Geoscience courses last year, to provide the school the opportunity to “reassess the skill-set needed in today’s broader geo-energy industry.” I’m told by an American academic familiar with Imperial’s decision-making that this was largely a pragmatic decision: Students weren’t interested in signing up.

To be clear, the world can’t and won’t wean itself off of fossil fuels come next week, and some fossil fuels are needed to foster a just global energy transition. But that does not in the least mean that the kind of funding ties the Doerr School is forging are warranted in pursuit of climate solutions.

The folks who comprise the Fossil Free Research group includes a Nobel Peace Prize winner, the former President of Ireland, world-renowned economists, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, elite university chancellors and, importantly, lead IPCC assessment authors. The upshot from the IPCC report earlier this year: We have the technology we need to create a habitable future right now. The continuation of climate breakdown primarily hinges on moral decisions.

The Doerr’s School’s pursuit of “a future where humans and nature thrive in concert and in perpetuity” with fossil funding is a major misstep on the path to a sustainable future.

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