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Podcast: Universities Are Starting to Break Their Addiction to Fossil Funding

Podcast: Universities Are Starting to Break Their Addiction to Fossil Funding

You might remember in the podcast season we did with Earther last year that Dharna Noor and I got into how much money oil companies invest in research at top-tier universities, and some of the reasons behind those investments. Although they certainly influence how climate science is studied, and which solutions are given more research funding, we wanted to look at the social side of the equation: where were fossil fuel companies investing in public policy schools, or law schools, or economics programs? How were they working to narrow the social and political understanding of the problem and the available solutions to it? Seeing as how most folks have coalesced around the idea that addressing climate change is a political, not scientific, question, that seemed like an important place to look! And we were pretty shocked by what we found. Going back to the 1950s when Standard Oil first started to heavily invest in universities, oil companies have always thought about the social and political conditions necessary to preserve their wealth and power, and supported university research that does just that.

In recent years, university students have started to push their campuses to refuse this money, and last week Princeton University became the first to actually do so…or at least take the first step toward doing so. The university announced that it would no longer accept gifts or grants from 90 fossil fuel companies, and that its $37.7 billion endowment will also eliminate all holdings in those companies.

That list includes ExxonMobil, but… for now anyway…not BP, which continues to fund the university’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Still, it’s a massive step forward, and a huge win for the divestment movement.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to speak with divestment organizers at five different Ivy League universities who came together to file a legal complaint attempting to compel their campuses to divest from fossil fuels. The Fossil-Free Research campaign grew out of those efforts, and I had a chance to speak with those organizers as well, just as the initiative was getting off the ground. I’m bringing you those interviews now because when universities like Princeton and Harvard announce these big divestment decisions, they generally don’t credit the students that have been yelling at them for three years to do the right thing. These students spent countless hours researching and organizing, and applying constant pressure and it’s paying off. It’s also really interesting to see how folks like Dr. Geoffrey Supran and Dr. Ben Franta who started out campaigning for divestment as students have since devoted their careers to climate accountability, producing a lot of the research that this next generation of divestment organizers draw from. I guess two can play the university investment game, eh?

The entire reason I started looking into fossil fuel company investments in universities was the work that Dr. Geoffrey Supran and Dr. Ben Franta were doing back in 2017, work they summarized for The Guardian in a piece titled “The Fossil Fuel Industry’s Invisible Colonization of Academia.” I wound up interviewing them about it and doing an episode on the subject for the first season of Drilled.

"Among that set of dedicated research centers that are really influential in technology research and training future people working in climate also influencing the IPCC that a majority, I would say a majority of funding in those centers comes from fossil fuel groups," Franta said.

"I was involved with helping to organize the fossil fuel divestment movement at Harvard and we would go to faculty and try to solicit their support and we noticed something kind of interesting is that most faculty were either neutral or they would support it," Franta continued. "But the faculty that actually were opposed to it actively and would write about it in the press I would say more often than not. In fact almost all of the time these faculty were funded by fossil fuels."

Then a research director at the Kennedy School of Government called the researchers into his office and asked them not to answer any questions about research funding.

"We were called in for a staff meeting and our research director told us, you know there's a lot of activists and journalists snooping around and trying to inquire about our funding and funding from the oil industry," Franta told me. "And he said if anybody talks to you don't tell them anything and don't talk to them and send them to me instead. For an academic institution to actually tell its researchers don't tell other people where your funding comes from."

That experience led Franta to partner up with Supran, who was noticing similar things at MIT. Supran has since gone on to conduct research at Harvard, with Naomi Oreskes, and is now headed to Miami University to run a research center that will track how climate delay and denial spread on social media.

Franta went from Harvard to Stanford and is now launching a climate litigation initiative at Oxford. Real underachiever that guy. Last year he published a paper about the economists that had been hired by the American Petroleum Institute to model the financial downside of acting on climate, and how they now describe those models as faulty…although they still underpin a lot decision-making around climate policy. The paper is fascinating, and Franta found a particular economist who was willing to speak with him about the work too, but in a nutshell: they only modeled the cost of action…never the cost of inaction, the cost of unchecked climate change. When I talked to Franta about that paper, he mentioned that fossil fuel entities were heavily invested in university economics programs too, which prompted Dharna Noor and I to look into it for our season on fossil fuel in schools. And what we found was not just a seminar here or there, but a concerted effort to fundamentally shape how we understand and invoke economics that starts targeting Americans when they’re little kids and never lets up. Here’s Franta on why that’s so concerning:

Ben Franta: And that's obvious that we should ask is what effect has that had. What has been the influence of decades of funding from these special interests? Latest research is a, is one example, some new research that will be out soon. And by the time this airs, it might already be out.
It tracks the activity of a group of economic consultants who were hired by the petroleum industry for decades to produce analyses that were then used by the companies and by others opposing restrictions on fossil fuels to tell the public that it would just be way too expensive to act on. And that in any case, climate was not going to be a big deal. So the best thing to do is just do nothing.
And this was the economic ammunition that the industry used alongside their scientific merchants of doubt

As all of this fossil fuel investment in university research was happening, universities were themselves investing in fossil fuel companies. And students – including Supran and Franta when they were still grad students–were pushing for them to divest. There have been some big wins in the campus divestment movement over the past several years. The entire University of California system divested, for example. Harvard finally agreed to begin divesting last year. The divestment movement spawned the Sunrise Movement, and, last year, the Fossil-Free Research campaign. But there are still plenty of prestige schools that are heavily invested in fossil fuels. Which is why earlier this year students from five top tier schools came together to file a legal complaint alleging that actually…it’s illegal for their universities to be invested in fossil fuel stocks.

I spoke with Connor Chung from Harvard, Hannah Reynolds from Princeton, Christopher Rilling from Stanford, and Aditi Lele and Zahra Biabani from Vanderbilt shortly after that complaint was filed.

Amy: I  wanted to start with just a little bit of background , just to have you guys repeat how you all ended up involved in this and what prompted the decision for the universities to kind of join forces on this complaint?

Biabani: I can touch on this. I'm from the Vanderbilt campaign. So we were a group as, as all of the five schools, a divestment activism group on our own campuses. And we had a meeting with someone from Harvard which at that point had recently divested, and we were really excited to learn about how they finally got to that point after a decade of trying to convince their administration that this was of importance. And so we had a meeting with this person and they advised us to contact cdp. The Climate Defense Project. Mm-hmm. . And so that's how we kind of got into the, the realm of the legal complaint. And when, when talking with the people at cdp, Ted Hamilton specifically we learned that there was a bunch of other schools that were going to be filing with the same date and, and on the same timeline.

So of, of course,  each campaign, And, and filing was confidential, so we asked if it would be okay to, you know, learn about who else was filing so that we could kind of share ideas, strategies, just advice. And all the campaigns said yes. And it happened to be not only Vanderbilt, but Stanford, MIT, Princeton.

Am I forgetting someone? Yale? I think. Yale. Oh my gosh. . Thank you. Yes. So. And then we, yeah. Asked to be put in touch with the other campaigns. And from there we just started a, a signal chat and realized that there was a lot of mobilization, not just within our campaigns, but across campaigns that could help us really accelerate the movement.

And so this particular law, UPMIFA  is using that law as something that CDP  had come up with and been thinking about, or did that come from the, the campus divestment groups?

Reynolds:That idea came from the CDP and I think the strategy had already been used, you know, at Harvard and Cornell where they were both successful and divested only a couple months after this happened, but then also at like several other universities at this point. So it was, the CDP kind of came to us with this idea and you know, like Harvard had kind of introduced it to us before connecting us to them.

Amy: Yeah. And what's happening now ? Where, where are we at as of today?

Lele: I can jump in on this a little bit and then I know a couple of the other states have actually gotten a little bit more response. So I think Chris, if you wanna jump into that would be great. So as of right now, we've filed all five of the complaints.

And we have through the media attention that we've gotten made, our schools aware that that has happened, made our administrations aware and have also started campaigns to make sure that our state attorney generals take the complaint seriously and follow through on it. Because right now, once we've filed those complaints, it really goes into the hands of our state attorney generals because it's up to them.

To what severity and with what intensity they decide to investigate what we've brought to them. And so we really hope that just they did in the Massachusetts State Attorney General's office, they actually take this really seriously and start investigating that. And so our role right now is really pressuring the state attorney generals to do that and take it seriously.

Biabani: And then here at Vanderbilt, we, I think Tennessee might be the only one which actually has a Republican Attorney General, if I'm not wrong, so, it's definitely a little bit of a different situation to hear with the amount of pressure that we're going to be putting in to make sure that they pay attention because we realize that the politics of it are definitely different in this environment that they might be in states like Massachusetts or California.

Amy: And then I know that that Harvard did divest, right. So, you know, does that, I don't know, how does that impact the complaint as it kind of moves forward if some of the campuses are complying, or at least, you know, starting to consider that and some are not?

Rilling: I think there's a few threads to that. One is I think that there's a lot of different. Harvard is obviously very like a front running school, and a lot of other schools will depend and make their policy decisions based off of how Harvard reacts. That's specifically how Stanford has acted.

That's how Stanford has adopted some of its covid policies, A lot of its initial ideas about sending students off campus at the beginning of the pandemic. So it's really important because Harvard is one of the, the biggest endowments, but also has a lot of institutional impact and its policy sort of put pressure on different schools.

And you saw in the Boston area right after Harvard divested a few other local schools did too , which is. You know, pretty, I mean, it's, it's not definitive, but you can see that there's a connection. Yeah. Additionally on the point of Harvard having a large endowment, it also indicates that for schools who have endowments in the same range and run in the same way you often see a lot of communication and strategy communications.

That happened specifically with the Yale Endowment. There's a really famous endowment chair there who sort of hopped around to different schools and led a lot of different research and thinking on institutional investing. Mm-hmm. . And sort of the third thread that I'll mention is the idea that just because Harvard has, you know, made this commitment to divesting doesn't mean that.

One that they've gotten out of their asset classes already that are the point of this legal complaint. But two doesn't mean that the legal proceeding still couldn't happen. Right? Because the law has been broken in the past. These are still potentially active considerations. So they're not out of the woods yet.

So that's sort of a signal to other schools that, you know, what are we doing? What, what do we need to look into or do we have recovery, our bases covered. And Stanford so far has responded to just a handful of requests for comment, basically indicating that no Stanford's endowment is following all the laws as far as we're aware.

Reynolds: Yeah. I can add onto that just cuz  Princeton being proximity to Harvard and also in the Ivy League, has this history I guess of, of, of following Harvard in a lot of different things, especially related to  racial justice and stuff. But some of the things that I've heard. Both our administrators say and, and folks in the Harvard campaign have mentioned is that Harvard claimed that, you know, this legal complaint had nothing to do with their choice to divest that they were already in the process of divesting before it happened.

So that's, I think one way that we might see our schools react to it is even if they do choose to divest, they might not credit the legal complaint to that. Right, Right. And then the other thing is like our administrators have said our, like our president still denies that Harvard. Has committed to divest.

He's I don't think they actually divested . So, so you know that there's, there's that kind of thing like where there, there's just still this like unwillingness to just see what's happening, call it what it is. So that, I, I think that could also surface As well.

Lele: Yeah, just adding to that, I think at least at Vanderbilt, referring to Harvard is also a lot about rhetoric because there's a lot of rhetoric here of calling ourselves the Harvard of the South and things like that.

Mm-hmm. . And so we've been really adamant about saying that if you wanna draw those comparisons, then you have to follow through on the same actions that Harvard is taking. And so that was part of the just rhetoric that we're pushing as well, about using it as a precedent. Mm-hmm. .

Biabani: Yeah. And sorry to jump onto what, what Hannah was saying, even though Harvard didn't acknowledge the legal plan complaint, it's in the chancellor president's divestment press release. He used the terms Prudent investments, which is the key kind of term of UPMIFA. So that's why that we, they believe that that strategy got them to divestment.

Amy: Interesting. That's super interesting.  I've done a bunch of research on fossil fuel funding of research on all of these campuses, and I wonder if some of the hesitation From some of these universities around divestment is in part linked to the fact that they have large amounts of money that they're taking from fossil fuel companies,  as well. And I'm curious what you guys have seen with respect to that.

Reynolds: Princeton has a really unique situation because unlike any other school in the country, Princeton has a requirement that if we are going to divest, we also need to disassociate from those companies and the products they produce, which is basically a completely arbitrary thing.

But that was created by Princeton after South African Apartheid, divestment campaigns because they didn't want it to be so easy to divest from things. But basically that means we have to have plans to not be like driving cars that have gas if we're gonna devs from gas companies or we need to be moving to you know, renewables to heat our, our dorms and stuff like that.

Those are the kind of claims it makes, but it also makes this claim that we need to, you know, dissociation also means ending any research funding from these companies. Mm-hmm.  and currently. Much of our energy and environmental research is funded by Exxon and BP and some by Shell as well. Mm-hmm. . And so, so a lot of faculty members are unwilling to support divestment because of this, because of this requirement prints to put in as well.

And yeah, so I think that's a huge factor.

Did you catch that? Princeton has had a policy in place since the apartheid divestment days intended to make it harder for the company to be compelled to divest from anything. It requires that if they’re going to decide to pull investments from any particular company or sector, they must also disassociate themselves altogether. Which makes their announcement last week a really, really big deal. It means that not only are they divesting their investment portfolio from fossil fuels, but they’re saying no to fossil fuel research money, and moving toward eliminating fossil fuel use on campus. Obviously none of that will happen overnight, but it’s a really big move. The presence of fossil fuel research money has made a lot of other campuses slow to divest, too.

Christopher Rilling, Stanford University: There's a lot of news articles from Stanford Daily and some opinions that have quotes from a 2020, I believe on May, 2020 meeting in which. The faculty Senate, which is sort of like a decision making body full of like tenured professors at the university who vote on policy, like some policy explicitly cited this funding as a reason to not divest and expressed concern that divestiture would sort of poison these funding sources and jeopardize grad student.
Ability to study as well as like certain research departments ability to continue the programs. And I'll drop some links in the chat. I was shocked when I read this. This is part of how I got involved with Fossil Free. Yeah. Yeah. And they also use the same surprising arguments to be honest about, you know, you all fly you all drive cars.
We all enjoy like heated homes. All because of these fossil fuels and . Yeah. It just doesn't, it, it doesn't make sense and it's not a good look coming from people who are, you know, who know better for sure. Because they wouldn't be where they are if they didn't .But it, it definitely indicates that there's a lot more going on that's completely opaque. And so what we've done at Stanford, we have a new school sustainability coming about. So we've tried to meet with the organizers of that new school to understand what the funding structure would look like. And they explicitly said that they wouldn't rule out funding from oil and gas companies for school focus on climate which.
Just another shocking revelation. Yeah. And that's yeah, that's whole. I say on that, it's, it's pretty That's really interesting. It's hard to pull apart the influences.

Rilling got involved with Fossil Free Research as a result of that experience. It’s a new campaign that launched earlier this year, organized by…you guessed it, campus divestment students. It includes universities all over the world, and it asks universities to do a pretty straightforward thing: stop taking fossil fuel research money. Hundreds of university researchers and professors have signed on too, including not just those in the physical sciences, but also those in the social sciences. I spoke with Ilana Cohen from Harvard University and Joel Penrose at Cambridge University around the time the campaign officially launched, in March 2022.

Amy: Is there any specific thing that, like either someone telling you about it or a specific piece of research that you saw being funded?  How did you in particular, first hear about, or did you know already going into Harvard that there was  major fossil fuel funding of research there?

Cohen: Yeah, that's a great question. No, I, I never had the expectation that my university would be partnering in such a pernicious and serious way with fossil fuel companies when it comes to climate research. I really only came to learn about this issue through Organizing around divestment. And then ultimately when, when we were able to win this massive victory at Harvard last fall, getting the university, the world's richest one to commit to divest our, our campaign started really thinking critically about the other ways in which the industry had infiltrated Harvard and through extensive research—because this is something that Harvard and many US and UK universities do not make public or are not transparent about—we discovered that so many of the research initiatives and, and centers of influence on campus were in fact sponsored by fossil fuel companies.

And we put out a report about that at Harvard last semester. Just to name one example there are. Initiatives like the Corporate Responsibility Initiative at Harvard Kennedy School that are funded by fossil fuels. There are, you know, other climate and environmental science initiatives that are funded by fossil fuel companies and the information about this is incredibly disparate and lacking.

You basically have to try to internet search your way through individual websites and publications of every possible researcher and research center on campuses that you can think of to be able to even. You know, get, get at the tip of the iceberg of the amount of fossil fuel money that's coming in. And I would guess that's because our universities are, are fundamentally embarrassed actually about a lot of the money that they're getting and the fact that it's going to initiatives that shape climate policy because there is an obvious and inherent contradiction between fossil fuel money and good climate change research.

But that's to say also that a big part of why we put forward this letter and, and why we're working with so many academics and climate experts to call this issue out, is that transparency and disclosure is a really big first step. If our universities wanna claim that this money is, is doing anything meaningful, then at the very least they need to start talking about where this money is in the first place.

And at the moment, the vast majority of universities are simply not doing that. So that's, that's a long way of saying that. I came to really diving into this issue after thinking more about how, you know, what, what is not seen. On university campuses that actually provides a critical license to the fossil industry.

Cause when I say not seeing, what I mean is that our universities are not transparent about it, but fossil fuel companies are abundantly transparent about it. They're advertising partnerships with the universities like Princeton and Harvard and Cambridge and Oxford on their websites all of the time.

They're citing the research that they get to put their name brands on, affiliated with these universities, to policymakers, to media, to the public. All of the time because they want the reputational gains that come along with affiliation with established academic institutions.

Amy: Yeah, that's so interesting because I know when when I first talked to Ben Franta about this, around 2017 or something, when he and Geoffrey Supran were first starting to write about some of this stuff, one of the things that he mentioned was that, as someone who's been in academia for a while, I had never been told specifically to hide funding sources. And that that is something that, that he had the experience of at Harvard was like, you know, don't talk to anybody about where this funding comes from. Which does seem very antithetical to how universities are supposed to operate. So Joel, I'm curious same question for you when, how did this appear on your radar and was there anything specific that you saw or did you just sort of hear about it?

Penrose: So I think I came, I came to it through a slightly different path by the time I got to Cambridge. Cambridge had already divested, so I wasn't involved in that movement. But what I was involved in as I was heavily involved in the Extinction Rebellion campaign at Cambridge to get Cambridge to cut its research ties with Schlumberger, which is one of the world premier oilfield services provider.

And through that I became more and more involved with people at Cambridge Climate Justice, trying to cut ties with. With all fossil fuel companies through all research. And I think one of the things that struck me was that so many of the PhD students that I met were in fact being funded by fossil fuel companies such as Schlumberger and Shell.

And I guess what really, really, yeah, what, what offended me in my sense of what Cambridge should stand for is. There are only, there are only so many good PhD researchers, for example, and that they're being funneled into an industry which is so harmful to the planet. I think that's what really struck me in what really I didn't really realize when I first came to Cambridge.

One of the thing we must remember is there's a lot of research to be done and only a finite number of researchers to do it. Not to mention that our time is rapidly running out. So, yeah, that was my route into this campaign.

Cohen: And I'll just add to that because Joel and, and the folks who have worked on the  Schlumberger Out campaign have done such a fantastic job.

One thing that is really obvious by Schlumberger's affiliation with universities is how much the, the green washing angle of affiliation with universities really plays into fossil fuel companies' decisions here. Schlumberger very strategically locates its research centers, right by prestigious universities including Cambridge in the UK and then Harvard and MIT in the U.S.

And it says explicitly and it's, and its website and its media materials that the reason it does that is because it wants to benefit from recruiting from those campuses and partnering with those campuses directly. And that's a really clear reflection of exactly what fossil fuel companies like Schlumberger, which are responsible for just absolute environmental catastrophes and injustices are seeking here when they look to universities. For partnerships, it's social license.

Amy: Yeah, exactly. I was  impressed by the letter and the number and breadth of, of folks that were signed onto it. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about and And, you know, I guess how hard or not hard it was to get researchers to to sign on,  what were some of the hesitancy you were hearing from people about making this statement?

Penrose: Yeah, I can start with that, but, you know, a really common hesitation we've encountered is the idea that fossil fuel companies may be bad actors, but they're still providing money for ostensibly good climate research and don't we need just more money for climate research? But as we've made clear, you know, the, the reality that there, there may be that there isn't enough funding coming from our governments and the public sector for climate change research only underscores the need for more money to go into climate change research, and for universities, particularly rich universities, to lead the way in securing that funding. It doesn't erase the fundamentally unjustifiable and intractable conflict that arises when you take fossil fuel money for climate change research.

Nor does it alter the reality that by taking that money, Universities inherently lend the prestige of their reputations as well as their resources to companies that are trying to make themselves look like good faith climate actors, when in fact they're doing everything in their power to sustain a core business model that is completely at odds with the demands of leading climate science and climate justice.

So there is no such thing as good fossil fuel money for climate change research because the money is inherently problematic and also because what we're highlighting here, again, is a systemic issue. We need good funding for the research on which our futures, our planet, our communities, particularly communities being disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis depend.

And that's something that we just simply can't sacrifice to the whims of fossil fuel companies looking to profit here off of crisis, whether it's immediate humanitarian crisis like Russia's war on Ukraine, or the longer term climate crisis, and all the humanitarian conflicts that that poses. And I think it's also important to point out again, That many rich universities have a lot of resources at their disposal and have made very clear their ability to fundraise vast amounts of money to support initiatives that they're interested in.

So why do they not show that same initiative with climate change research? And if they wanna claim, you know, if, if, for example, if Harvard wants to claim that fossil fuel money is really contributing, Research portfolio, then it needs to prove that, because right now there's, there's no evidence to show that that's the case.

The evidence points in favor of Harvard allowing fossil view companies. Infiltrates academic sphere and, and benefit from that. But not that there's a dependence there. I mean, the university is not transparent at all about the scale of funding that's taken from these companies in relation to actually its overall amounts of research money.

And I mean, with the, with the prestige and money already available to a place like Harvard, it's only fair that we expect it to show leadership in. Accelerating a trend of fossil free climate research rather than playing into a status quo that only allows the same companies destroying the planet to continue doing so and to harm the most disadvantaged communities in the process.

There's this sort of a common query you often get is there's this, there's this sort of myth that the green transition can't be funded without the financial boss backing of fossil fuel companies. And I think in the UK we've seen that with the government's refusal to implement windfall taxes on oil giants.

Because Rishi Sunak specifically says, that's the Chancellor of the Exchequer, specifically says that they need this money to invest in, first to invest in renewable energy. Whereas I think we see. Well, the, the stats say that less than 1% of total expenditure of the fossil fuel companies is on renewable energy.

And fundamentally, if these companies were committed to a green transition and to funding a green transition, then they would be green renewable energy companies rather than fossil fuel companies. So I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding which many people have with regards to where the money's coming from.

As Ilana said universities and governments have an immense capacity to fund. And huge spending power when they put their minds to it. And at the moment the green transition is simply not the heart of their.

Amy: Yeah, I was gonna ask you guys both kind of related to that whether you are hearing not just about the funding piece, but just this, there's such a pervasive idea that,  oil companies need to have a quote, see it at the table when we're talking about transition. I mean, you see this in, you know, the cop meetings.

You see it even in the IPCC reports, all of it. Right? So, I'm, I'm curious if you've come up against that too, this idea of well, you know, we don't wanna "villainize" them, or as I had someone put it to me recently—and this was ridiculous: "We don't wanna do a cancel culture on fossil fuels." I'm curious if, if you heard stuff like that.

Penrose: Well, I think this idea that they should have a seat at the table is fundamentally flawed because I think they should not have a seat at the table cuz they're a company whose business model is diametrically opposed to the science says climate action. That we need at the moment. And it's just wrong to endow them with the power to influence such a, such a transition.

Just as tobacco companies have almost been universally banned from funding clinical research due to their extensive record of disinformation. I think so. Do so. Should fossil companies be locked out of the debate as to where, where the green stamp transition goes from now? Just because of their vested interest in maintaining this status's quo.

Cohen: Yeah, and I mean, I'll just add Amy, as you know, Well, you know, fossil fuel companies have literally just shown in every single possible way that they have no interest in being part of a rapid or just renewable energy transition. I mean, they're rejecting shareholder proposals left and right for decarbonization.

So there goes shareholder engagement, right? I mean, if, if you were one to advocate for that, the proof is in the pudding. You know, that's not a viable strategy at a, in a reality where fossil fuel companies just shoot down every possible attempt from shareholders to, to actually change their business model.

Which makes sense because their profits are dependent on that core business model surviving. They're lobbying against climate policy funding trade associations that lobby against climate policy, spreading disinformation, greenwashing consistently, which we're finally, and in a very exciting way, seeing litigation around seeing actually, like organizations and governments take on fossil fuel companies for those claims. But I mean, there's just, there's every single indication that they don't want this transition to happen, that they wanna sustain their profits to the point that it causes immense environmental and, and social damage.

And that's just not a reality that our universities should be supporting, particularly when they are institutions that are, you know, meant to be at the forefront of, of public thought, of public innovation, of, of future oriented thinking and of support for young people. It's their responsibility to start showing leadership in the same way that they expect it from their students and in the way that their reputations and their resources demand.

Amy: I feel like in the last five years,  when this stuff first started to, get into the media sphere at least, that there was a lot of pushback actually from climate researchers who, you know, I think initially were worried that  this conversation I don't know, discredited some of their research or their colleagues research and just to see the turnaround from that to now where actually I've seen at least three people that I personally know were very defensive about this conversation five years ago signing onto this letter, you know, is a, is that's a big, that's a big shift.

Penrose: Yeah. I think just as the crisis has got worse and worse and worse, I think in this last year alone, you've beginning, you're beginning to see Just how bad it's become.

The UK we've, we've had three successive storm that have been the worst in a very, very long time. Hit us one after the other, after the other, after the other. So I think people are really, really starting to wake up and there's been a dramatic shift after divestment. People are looking around and thinking, where's the next logical step from here?

And certainly cutting, cutting research ties is that next logical step. I think with divestment, it was very much focused on one side of the coin and then,  Now we are focusing on the other side, which is to cut fossil fuel ties all together. And I think, yeah, you have seen a massive public shift, not only with the public, but also with academics. And that's very important.

Amy: I know that,  just in, in looking at some of the the historical documentation of fossil fuel companies at the very beginning of them, you know, starting to invest in university research that, you know, one of the stated goals was to to really make sure that that university students were embracing free market capitalism and seeing the energy industry as part of that and all of these kinds of things.

And really wanting universities to be somewhat dependent on corporate funding so that this kind of opportunity for influence would continue for a long time. So I'm, I'm curious, if you've heard anything from the universities themselves or from researchers around, you know, well, where, where are we gonna get this money if we don't get it from the fossil fuel industry? And and, and what the, the answers are to that.

Cohen: Yeah, I mean it's, it's a really tough question. I think  to have bad research or research that helps to prop up fossil fuel industry propaganda and stymying of climate action is not better than having no research. So that's a baseline. But I also think the reality, again, is that we need climate research.

We need honest and effective climate change research now to be able to actually take climate action in a way that allows us as a society to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, to limit severe levels of planetary warming, to keep open a pathway of what you know, the, the International Energy Agency says is needed for net zero emissions at a global scale by 2050, which means no new investments in new fossil fuel supply projects today.

All of that, all of that, making this transition in a way that's urgent, in a way that's socially just depends upon the production of honest, effective climate research where its integrity is not questioned because even the questioning of the integrity of such research and of universities' credibility on climate goes a long way in precluding the kind of action that we need to take. But it is the responsibility of rich universities in particular as we point out on the Fossil-Free Research campaigns website to lead the way in securing funds for, for fossil free climate research and for helping to establish those alternative funding streams.

And it's also the job of governments to participate in that because I mean, if, if good climate research is not in the public interest, I don't know what else is right? What else would our governments be, be funding right now? And that's like a very serious policy issue that we need to confront as well. But I will say, I think it's really important to recognize at the same time that we make those points that many universities are absurdly un-transparent about the amount of fossil fuel money going into their research programs.

And it is very possible that we could find out at a place like Harvard or Cambridge, you know, that that money is relatively small in the grand scheme of things for those universities. But again, the damage that taking that money does that partnering with these companies does is immense. And so there the calculation actually would be quite clear, right?

Like that these universities should be divesting their research streams from fossil fuel money in the same way that they divest their endowments. So this is all to say that disclosure is a really fundamental step. It's insufficient in terms of addressing the intractable conflict of interest posed by fossil fuel money for climate research.

But these are all things that we need to grapple with in a sphere of meaningful and open dialogue. And that's part of what this letter is trying to force because universities haven't been at the table so far in many cases in terms of addressing this issue in the way that's required to ensure that they're operating with integrity and with a true commitment to advancing our futures.

Amy: Joel, I'm really curious to hear from you about the difference between this conversation in the US versus the uk. And, and especially around the funding stuff and, and how how universities are funded and, and just whether you're seeing a difference in how people are talking about this  in the UK versus how you hear Americans talk about it.

Penrose: Well, I've never been to the US. I'm not sure how well informed I am on how it is in the US but certainly in the UK there's a growing realization that the call for universities to reject fossil fuel company funding is intrinsically bound up with the call for increased governmental  investment in climate change research.

This especially comes in the wake of huge cuts to. All research, including climate change research last year due to the Coronavirus pandemic. And there are massively growing calls for increased funding in all areas of university research because this dependence on corporate funding creates, well, research being poured into all the wrong areas. I'm, I'm sure I've said before, but I do think that there is a, there is a huge amount of research to be done and not many people to do it, essentially. Right? And there's this idea that there's this idea that all research is good research, but that's, that's not right.

Cohen: That's right. Yeah. That's just not true. I don't think there's, What we need to do is find the most effective use of the resources we have. And though obviously there's no definition of effective research, no one has any of the definitive answers. But what is clear is that you need to find a more objective source of funding.

And that is certainly what fossil fuel companies cannot provide. They should be the last, decide the direction of this green transition. And yeah, increased governmental in intervention and management of research funding is definitely the way forward.

Amy: Yeah. Okay. So I know that this letter is just the beginning.  Are there things that you guys can talk about yet that that you have planned for future? Where do you wanna see this going?  I mean, I assume you wanna hear universities committing to not taking fossil fuel money for, for research, but but beyond that, you know, like what's kind of the next step in trying to encourage that from universities?

Cohen: Yeah. Well I'd say heck yeah! That's, that's the goal. Is to get universities to actually implement these bans. A first step though would be, Instigating meaningful dialogue and, and by meaningful dialogue, I don't mean like bureaucratic back and forth,  with administrators, which I think the divestment movement has shown in many cases simply fails to succeed when our universities are actually corporations beholden to, to certain interests among those, the fossil fuel industry. But what, what I would do mean is rallying folks on campuses. You know, this letter is really exciting to see and I think we're optimistic that having these more than 500 names of leading academics, university members of climate experts on the letter will inspire many, many more folks in these fields to step forward to use their voices, their power, their resources, their public platforms, which students often lack to be able to push universities in tandem with students who can do the sort of grassroots organizing work that also needs to be done at the same time to force these conversations.

So I think we're hopeful that the letter will inspire direct actions and new concerted organizing efforts, particularly among student divestment campaigns that are looking for next steps in the wake of their divestment victories. In addition to mobilizing allied bases of faculty and alumni and, and those across the sphere of higher academia to push on our universities to make real institutional change on this issue.

And I think it's also worth noting You know, the idea of a fossil fuel money ban for climate research is so critical at universities for the reasons that the letter lays out, which is that universities have enormous amounts of prestige and resources and legitimacy granted to them. But this is also a model that could easily be adopted by other research institutions, right, by organizations that are focused on climate change research in the same way that, research institutions like Cancer UK that that focus on cancer and public health research have decided to systematically reject tobacco money because of the inherent conflict of interest posed between such money and research around public health.

So there, there are many climate change research organizations that could adopt the same kind of policy that. We've been calling for in a university context, and I think part of our vision also is, is expanding this call and seeing those institutions come on board as well, because they have a lot of the same cultural power and semblance of public legitimacy that allows for their partnerships with the fossil fuel industry to make a public impact in terms of sustaining the industry's deadly core business model.

Cohen: Yeah, I would just add the I think what's been really critical in this effort  is the transnational dimension of it. And I think the next step would be to increase international inter university corporation. You may have noticed with the letter, it's very Harvard and Cambridge based.

And I think the next step is to try and expand that to European universities and South American universities, Australian universities across the globe to create a really global effort. Fossil free research is just the beginning, the tip of a very, very much bigger campaign. And I think, yeah, next step is to increase engagement with students across campuses not only in the US and the UK, but across the world.

Penrose: Definitely worth mentioning though, that we have signatories on the letter from think it's, it's over 20, maybe 23 universities that are outside of the US and the UK as well. And, and we do explain on the website, you know, we started with the US and UK because that's where a lot of the student organizers you know, who are working on this for base, but also because those universities have among the greatest amounts of resources in the world and have been so key in the divestment movement and have a unique responsibility to take action. But certainly we hope that this is a ban that could apply to many more universities in similar positions such as universities in Canada. And so that's why it's also really cool to see so many academics sign onto this letter, actually, who are outside of the US and the UK.

Amy: I wonder too  if you guys have talked at all about connecting with the handful of academic publishers that publish a lot of this research too, all of which are also partnering with fossil fuel companies in unfortunate ways. Because it's a fairly small handful. I wonder if if there's been any kind of discussion around looking at them too. So the folks like Taylor and Francis, Elsevier you know, those, the, the big kind of publishers of, of research from these universities as well.

Cohen: That's a really great idea. I mean, we, we have not started to organize around that, but certainly I think that is again, part of our hope for what this letter effort could build into. Right? The letter is meant to provide a foundation for showing institutions that are, are part of the climate academia sphere, that they need to step up in this moment of crisis.

And certainly as you mentioned, like climate change publishers of which they're finite amount are really, really key parts in that because they could decide not to, They, you know, they could implement bans on what, what they're gonna publish in accordance with funding. And also because again, there is, there is research to show that, you know, disclosure alone of a funding sources does not mitigate skewed research outcomes.

Certainly it doesn't mitigate the, the reputational rewards that fossil fuel companies would get from funding this research and the right adverse effects. Policy making and, and everything that, that has to do with as well. So definitely focusing on publishers is a really, really good idea that we hope that this letter can help support going forward.

Amy: I appreciate you guys taking the time. Is there anything that you wanna make sure people know about with this initiative that I didn't already ask you about?

Penrose: I guess just to let people know that the, the letter is still open for people to sign. If there are any academics listening, please check out our website and sign the letter. I mean, the more signatures we have, the better. And yeah, I mean, it's just the start of a very big campaign and we need all the support we can get.

Cohen: Yeah, I would just add to that now is the moment to start organizing around this issue. Particularly again for campaigns that are looking for this next step that have won divestment and are looking for ways to think more broadly about how the fossil fuel industry has infiltrated their universities.

This, this is the moment we need a renewable just energy transition. Now, more than ever, the war on Ukraine has only highlighted that we need systemic investment in renewable energy. In new crystal clear ways. And so this is a very unique time in which to be organizing. And I'd also just add that there are a lot of campaigns that have started doing incredible work in this regard that that would provide great models for anyone looking to get involved.

So, You know, we're from Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard and Cambridge Climate Justice and the Schlumberger Out campaign run by Extinction Rebellion Cambridge. But Sunrise, GW has also been doing incredible work in this sphere. They put out a very big report. One of their organizers through the organization UnKoch My Campus on the ways in which the fossil fuel industry had infiltrated the George Washington University Regulatory Study Center.

And they have actually proposed their own fossil fuel money ban. Really, really cool. It includes not only the carbon underground 200, but also the slippery six or or six companies that were subpoenaed by Congress for their fossil fuel industry malfeasance and so on. And foundations like the Koch Foundation that aid and abet these companies.

So that's just to say there's a lot of, of groundwork  already going on in this sphere. And what the letter does is it really amplifies and adds an entirely new perspective to it by showing that academics and experts are rallying behind this cause. So this is a prime moment to really think if you are a climate activist in any sort of space in the academic world about how you can leverage your position, any institutions you're tied to, to forced institutions that need to show climate leadership in this area to do so.

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