A feud over fossil fuel money
Is it OK to accept money from fossil fuel companies?
At Stanford University, the question is ringing loud. This month, hundreds of students, faculty members and alumni, in an open letter, called on the university’s new climate school to decline funding from fossil fuel companies.
The letter was partly a response to an interview the school’s inaugural dean, Arun Majumdar, gave to my Times colleague David Gelles, in which he said the school was open to donations from oil companies. Majumdar said the school, known as the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, would be willing to work with companies “that want to diversify and be part of the solution.”
But the students and faculty members argue that fossil fuel companies just want to deflect attention from their role in a climate crisis that they continue to perpetuate. Accepting money from an industry with “a proven record of actively obscuring the scientific consensus on climate change,” the letter said, “presents a conflict of interest.”
It’s an issue that many institutions around the world, not only universities, are struggling with. Two environmental nonprofit groups, Stand.earth and 350.org, started a website to keep track of divestment pledges from universities, banks, companies and even Queen Elizabeth II. So far, the list includes more than 1,500 institutions and businesses worth some $40 trillion. (The New York Times accepts advertising from fossil fuel companies.)
In a commencement speech this morning at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, urged students to shun fossil fuel companies. “Don’t work for climate wreckers,” he said. “Use your talents to drive us toward a renewable future.”
Back at Stanford, a survey of students about measures they wanted the new climate school to implement found that refusing money from polluting industries was a top priority.
Celina Scott-Buechler, a doctoral student at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, said she thought the moment echoed the decline of the tobacco industry.
The parallels between the two cases are clear. Both sectors have been accused of running campaigns to mislead consumers and government institutions on the true dangers linked to their products. Both have faced lawsuits on those grounds.
In 2016, researchers unearthed documents that suggested that both oil and tobacco companies had hired the same public relations firms and research organizations to fight off allegations that their products were harmful.
There are also differences, though. As we know all too well, fossil fuels are central to modern life in a way that cigarettes are not, and it is an enormous challenge to change that. And, like Majumdar, many say they believe in working with companies on their plans to transform their businesses. The general idea is that collaboration on credible plans to transition to the clean energy sector is a lot more helpful than shunning companies.
For example, when the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, the largest of its kind in the world, announced in 2019 that it would divest from fossil fuels, it didn’t include oil companies that invest in clean energy technology.
Whatever happens, scientists say, it needs to happen sooner rather than later.
According to a timeline by the PBS program “Frontline,” four decades passed between the first scientific studies showing the dangers of smoking and the moment states started suing to recover what they had spent treating sick smokers in the 1990s.
It was around then that institutions started to reject tobacco money (The Times stopped accepting cigarette ads in 1999), though a few medical schools only decided to refuse donations a few years ago.
Scientists started to agree that human activity has an impact on the planet’s climate around the 1980s. But only in recent years have U.S. states filed lawsuits against fossil fuel companies. They are arguing, much like they did in suits against the tobacco industry, that companies misled them.
But activists in the divestment movement argue that, in the case of climate change, the planet doesn’t have decades to ramp up the pressure on fossil fuel companies.
Scott-Buechler said she hoped the research that she and others are putting out “can be a rallying call to move faster than the institutions of the past.”
Before you go: Fast fashion and ethical shopping
What do you do if you want to shop responsibly but you have a limited budget? Some inexpensive fashion brands are better than others, but how long you wear the clothes is really crucial, writes Vanessa Friedman, chief fashion critic for The Times. Her advice: If you’re going to get something new, buy for the long term, not the weekend.
Last Friday’s newsletter characterized incorrectly the conclusions of a report by the World Meteorological Organization. While the agency did find that the world’s oceans have not been this acidic in 26,000 years, that time frame does not apply to heat in the oceans. (The last time oceans were this warm was more than 100,000 years ago.)
Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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