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Fossil Free Research campaigners

Campaigners with Fossil Free Research staged direct actions at Cambridge and Oxford Universities on May 17, 2022, demanding the schools stop accepting funding from fossil fuel companies. (Photo: Twitter/@SU_PresidentUG)

Climate Campaigners Demand Oxford, Cambridge Stop Taking Fossil Fuel Money

"This funding undermines climate justice, fueling the continued disproportionate harms of the fossil fuel industry on marginalized communities worldwide."

Julia Conley

Arguing that accepting tens of millions of dollars from fossil fuel giants creates a "fundamental conflict of interest" for researchers trying to help solve the climate crisis, academics and students at the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the United Kingdom on Tuesday held a direct action demanding the schools officially reject such funding.

Led by the Fossil Free Research Campaign, more than 50 campaigners held simultaneous actions at Cambridge's BP Institute, a research center funded by oil giant BP, and at Oxford's Saïd Business school, which received £1.37 million ($1.7 million) from the fossil fuel industry between 2020 and 2021.

The use of fossil fuel money—including a combined £22 million ($27.4 million) received by the universities between 2017 and 2021—leaves the prestigious institutions with "blood on their hands," said Matilda Gettins, a student at Oxford, citing deadly heatwaves in India and Pakistan and wildfires in North America.

"As long as our universities accept fossil fuel research funding," Gettins added, "they cannot claim to be partners in the urgent and just renewable energy transition that climate science and justice demand."

The direct action came just as a new study published in Environmental Research Letters showed that averting climate catastrophe will require shutting down existing fossil fuel infrastructure as well as halting the construction of new extractive projects.

"By accepting fossil fuel money for research, universities help greenwash the reputations of the companies driving climate breakdown and devastating communities."

Both the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the International Energy Agency (IAEA) have said in recent months that the world must end coal, oil, and gas development if it is to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Yet Cambridge's research institute uses funding from—and bears the name of—a company that plans to spend more than $37 million per day over the next eight years on oil and gas projects.

"As two of the most prestigious and well-resourced universities in the world, Oxford and Cambridge have a responsibility to refuse to lend their reputational legitimacy to the industry driving the climate emergency," said Ilana Cohen, a student at Cambridge. "They must instead protect research independence by leading the way in providing alternative forms of funding from sources without such a corrupting vested interest in delaying climate action."

By accepting money from BP and other fossil fuel corporations, said organizers, Cambridge and Oxford are aiding and abetting the companies' efforts to greenwash their own records and to claim they are embracing climate action while lobbying "against basic climate legislation" such as a 2009 cap-and-trade bill in the United States.

"Oil companies set on upholding our current carbon economy cannot be trusted as partners in researching the green transition, especially amid their ongoing efforts to greenwash their record of environmental destruction," said Fossil Free Research.

At the BP Institute on Tuesday, students and academics occupied the building for 63 minutes—one for every year since scientists first alerted oil companies to the environmental destruction they were causing.

Campaigners at Oxford dressed as researchers in white lab coats and smeared themselves with black and red paint to represent the school's partnerships with fossil fuel companies.

In the U.S., students with the Sunrise GW campaign at George Washington University showed solidarity with organizers at Cambridge and Oxford by staging a direct action at the school's Regulatory Studies Center, which receives funding from ExxonMobil and the Koch family.

"With less than a decade left to stave off catastrophic levels of warming, the problem here is clear: by accepting fossil fuel money for research, universities help greenwash the reputations of the companies driving climate breakdown and devastating communities," said Fossil Free Research. "And in addition to climate science, this funding undermines climate justice, fueling the continued disproportionate harms of the fossil fuel industry on marginalized communities worldwide."

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