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"Climate Emergency" yellow tape hangs outside the entrance of the Department of Interior during a protest by activists against fossil fuels on October 14, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Voters Agree: Fossil Fuel Funding in Climate Research Is a Massive Conflict of Interest

Fossil fuel companies have been quietly leveraging their wealth to manipulate climate research.

Over the past few years, fossil fuel combustion has been responsible for approximately 73 percent of the U.S.'s greenhouse gas emissions and 89 percent of the world's emissions. As these emissions have accumulated in the atmosphere, they have increased global average temperatures by more than 1 degree Celsius since preindustrial times—almost 10 percent—and with them the intensity and frequency of costly natural disasters. In 2020 alone, the U.S. spent $145 billion on disaster recovery—more than the federal government spent on transportation that year. While taxpayers have been forced to pick up the tab for the climate crisis, fossil fuel companies have continued to prosper. In 2021, leading fossil fuel companies made $205 billion in profits, of which their executives pocketed $394 million. 

Many of the nation's most prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and George Washington, are awash with fossil fuel funding, and scientists are ringing the alarm about the effects this money has on climate research.

It's no mistake that fossil fuel companies have continued to make major financial gains through the climate crisis. In addition to decades of public disinformation, oil and gas executives have fought to control political and even scientific discussions of the climate problem and its potential solutions. In public, fossil fuel executives make grand commitments to climate action; in private, however, they have led the charge against ambitious climate policy, funneling more than $450 million into congressional lobbying since 2011. In 2021 alone, they spent more than $82 million, including $577,000 in campaign contributions to Senator Joe Manchin, who garnered significant media attention for stalling Congress' reconciliation package containing major investments in climate and clean energy. 

Perhaps most dangerously of all, fossil fuel companies have been quietly leveraging their wealth to manipulate climate research. Many of the nation's most prominent universities, including Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and George Washington, are awash with fossil fuel funding, and scientists are ringing the alarm about the effects this money has on climate research. Just as campaign donations are used to buy votes against climate action in Congress, research funding can be leveraged as an attempt to buy results that benefit the fossil fuel industry's bottom line. Earlier this year, more than 500 leading academics and climate experts signed a letter calling for an end to universities' financial entanglements with the fossil fuel industry for this very reason. Signatories underscored the "inherent conflict of interest," calling fossil fuel funding for climate research "antithetical to universities' core academic and social values," and pointing out that it serves to uphold companies' greenwashing. 

In May, Stanford University made headlines for its bold announcement of a new school dedicated solely to sustainability. The Doerr School of Sustainability takes its name from venture capitalists John and Ann Doerr, who gave Stanford $1.1 billion to found the school—the second largest donation ever made to an academic institution, and the largest expressly dedicated to sustainability. However, the announcement didn't mention a critical detail that contradicts the stated mission of the school to "[solve] the most complex problems in climate": The school would be accepting funding from and openly partnering with fossil fuel companies. 

Stanford's brazen defiance of climate scientists' and experts' warning only a few months prior sends a clear message: Fossil fuel influence in climate-related learning and research is not a relic of the past but an ongoing and pressing threat to climate solution-building. Research that seeks to chart humanity's path forward does not happen in a vacuum—we scientists are every bit as vulnerable to influence as any other group of people. The speed with which we believe society can and should wean itself from fossil fuels (assumptions we build into our climate models) is a product of our larger worldviews. Science must be kept objective, and financial conflicts of interest are not the way to do so. 

A majority of likely voters agree. Recent Data for Progress polling shows that when presented with the statement "Colleges and universities studying the impacts of climate change and sustainability should refuse donations from fossil fuel companies so they can remain unbiased in their research," 57 percent of voters agree and only 29 percent of voters disagree. Those who agree include 68 percent of Democrats, 58 percent of Independents, and 47 percent of Republicans. 

Indeed, the battle for climate action and transparency is no longer about convincing the public of the science or urgency of the climate crisis. The majority of Americans already believe in climate change, are alarmed by the climate change impacts they are seeing materialize, and have demonstrated a clear desire to phase out fossil fuel production and use. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that fossil fuel companies wield too much power and that measures are needed to curb their power in climate action and policy.

As the fossil fuel industry is finally facing defeat in its decades-long misinformation campaign to malign the public against climate science, companies are doubling down on the battle for control over our political, economic, and academic institutions. As students, faculty, and staff demand their academic institutions be disentangled from fossil fuel interests, it is incumbent on those with institutional power to heed their—and the public's—call to action. 


Celina Scott-Buechler

Celina Scott-Buechler (@cescobu) is a senior resident fellow at Data for Progress leading on carbon dioxide removal.

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