Kicking oil companies out of school

Over the past decade, students around the world have successfully pressed many universities to sell off their fossil fuel investments. Today, I’m taking a turn as guest host of the Climate Forward newsletter with a bit of news about how that movement is expanding into new territory.

Faculty and senior staff at the University of Cambridge are poised to vote on a measure that would require the university to stop accepting funding from coal, oil and gas companies. It would be the first leading university to do so, and a vote could happen as early as this autumn.

People I interviewed would not make any predictions about the vote, but the proposal did appear to have solid support, especially among a younger cohort of academics at the university.

Building on that success, activists are increasingly turning their focus to the millions of dollars that universities accept from the oil and gas industry for research, sponsorships and collaborations. Those donations allow companies to greenwash their images, activists say, by appropriating prestige and environmental credentials even as they continue to invest billions in new fossil fuel projects that scientists say are heating the planet to dangerous levels.

“By working with the fossil fuel industry, we’re giving them legitimacy and we’re implicitly endorsing them,” said Luke Kemp, a researcher who studies climate risk at Cambridge and one of the academics who called for the vote. “This should be utterly uncontroversial for any academic who is clearly and truly concerned about climate change.” Kemp said he planned to vote yes on the measure.

At Cambridge, corporate partnerships include the BP Institute, established with a 22-million-pound donation from the oil and gas giant in 2000, as well as a professorship funded by Royal Dutch Shell whose research involves oil drilling. Oil and gas companies also fund academic prizes at the university that promote careers in oil, and a range of research projects. A new paper published Tuesday showed that climate scenarios put forward by oil majors including BP and Shell remain incompatible with Paris Agreement goals for a safe and habitable planet.

James Hardy, a spokesman for Cambridge, said that the university’s industry partnerships supported “world-leading research which is critical to the energy transition” and that it worked with partners who were carefully assessed by experts and “chosen because they have highly specialist skills and expertise, scale, and access to global markets.” The issue of collaboration “remains under discussion within the university.”

The university council could still throw up procedural objections to the vote, or seek to amend or delay the proposal, before it proceeds to a ballot.

An investigation by The Guardian newspaper found that Cambridge University had accepted £14 million, or about $17 million, from oil giants between 2017 and 2021, second in Britain only to Imperial College London, which focuses on science and engineering. Cambridge said its own tally of fossil fuel funds it had received for research projects was £5 million over the past two financial years.

Shell said its partnerships with academia had led to valuable research and the outcome of Cambridge’s vote “won’t change our commitment to pursue climate science with academic institutions around the world.” BP declined to comment.

The vote comes as universities elsewhere come under increasing pressure to re-evaluate their research partnerships with the fossil fuel industry. Stanford University was criticized this year after it announced that a new climate school would accept donations from fossil fuel companies.

Hundreds of Stanford students, alumni, faculty and staff have since signed an open letter calling on the school not to accept fossil fuel funding.

“We now know that at many universities, climate and energy research programs have become financially dependent on oil and gas funding, and that poses a huge problem in terms of independence,” said Benjamin Franta, a researcher at Stanford University who specializes in the history of climate delay and denial, including the effects of the fossil fuel industry’s influence in academia.

The planned vote at Cambridge is being called under an archaic system at the university that lets academics bring forward proposals, or “graces,” on matters involving governance at the institution. Previous graces, which are considered binding if adopted by vote, have involved guidelines on free speech and whether to continue the tradition of publicly posting students’ academic scores.

The latest grace calls on the university to no longer accept research funding, sponsorships or other collaborations with fossil fuel companies that continue to build new fossil fuel infrastructure or explore for new fossil fuel reserves. It also demands that the university cut ties with companies that remain part of trade associations that lobby against climate legislation.

Those terms would almost certainly disqualify all major oil and gas companies operating today.

Fossil Free Research, a student-led campaign against industry-funded climate research at universities, urged academics to vote in favor. “We hope they will hold in their minds those who do not have a vote in this ballot,” said Zak Coleman, a spokesman for the campaign and the former undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students’ Union.

Emily Sandford, an astrophysics researcher at Cambridge, said she felt a generational responsibility to act on climate. “I have students now who’ve grown up in a world where there was never any question that climate change was happening,” she said. “Faculty and those in power have dropped the ball, and it’s time we did something.”

The coming megastorm: Nobody knows exactly when, but a huge, weekslong blast of rain and snow, supercharged by climate change, could hit California in the next few decades. The Times used data from a new study to visualize what it might look like.

A generational divide: As the climate bill moves to President Biden’s desk, young activists warn lawmakers that the work isn’t done.

What’s in the climate bill: We’ve got a detailed analysis of what the Inflation Reduction Act includes.

‘Blood diamonds’: Western countries say the war in Ukraine makes Russia an exporter of conflict diamonds. The feud exposes the difficulty of regulating the gem trade.

A nature defender dies: The killing of a ranger who protected rhinos in South Africa stoked fears that poaching syndicates are growing more violent.

Windfall oil profits: Saudi Aramco announced second-quarter profits almost double those of last year. It predicted demand for oil would grow through the rest of the decade.

Upgrade or pay: New York developers are rushing to curb emissions in large buildings to meet limits set by a recent law. Landlords who don’t comply in time can expect hefty fines.

The case against carbon capture: The technology can actually drive the extraction of more oil and gas, according to Charles Harvey and Kurt House.

The Ford F-150 Lightning, a three-ton electric truck that can go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in about four seconds, could offer an all-around win: It stands to revitalize manufacturing in the Midwest and South while reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is, the trucks are expensive and, right now, there aren’t enough of them to meet demand. A lot hinges on whether those problems can be overcome.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

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