Kicking oil companies out of school
Over the past decade, students around the world have successfully pressured many universities to sell off their fossil fuel investments. Today it’s my turn to guest host 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 standing by 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 take place as early as this fall.
The people I interviewed made no predictions about the vote, but the proposal seemed to gain solid support, especially among a younger cohort of university graduates.
Building on that success, activists are increasingly targeting the millions of dollars that universities accept from the oil and gas industry for research, sponsorship and collaborations. Those donations allow companies to green their image, activists say, by usurping 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 partnering with the fossil fuel industry, we give them legitimacy and implicit support,” said Luke Kemp, a researcher who studies climate risk in Cambridge and one of the academics who called for voting. “This should be absolutely undisputed for any academic who is clearly and genuinely concerned about climate change.” Kemp said he planned to vote yes to the measure.
In Cambridge, business partnerships include the BP Institute, founded with a £22 million donation from the oil and gas giant in 2000, as well as a professorship funded by Royal Dutch Shell whose research includes oil drilling. Oil and gas companies also fund academic awards at the university that promote careers in oil, and a range of research projects. A new newspaper published on Tuesday showed that climate scenarios from oil majors, including BP and Shell, remain incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement for a safe and habitable planet.
James Hardy, a spokesperson for Cambridge, said the university’s industrial partnerships “support world-leading research critical to the energy transition” and that it worked with partners who were carefully reviewed by experts and “chosen because they have highly specialized skills and expertise, scale and access to global markets.” The issue of collaboration “continues to be a topic of discussion within the university.”
The University Council can still put forward procedural objections to the vote, change or postpone the proposal before it goes to a vote.
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 total of fossil fuels it had received for research projects was £5million over the past two fiscal years.
Shell said its partnerships with academia have led to valuable research and the outcome of Cambridge’s vote “will not change our commitment to pursuing 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 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 calls on the school not to accept funding for fossil fuels.
“We now know that climate and energy research programs at many universities 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 history. of climate slowdown and denial, including the effects of the fossil fuel industry influence in academia.
The scheduled vote in Cambridge is being held under an archaic system at the university that allows academics to submit proposals or ‘grants’ on matters related to the governance of the institution. Previous graces, considered binding when passed by vote, relate to guidelines for freedom of expression and whether we continue the tradition of public posting? students’ academic scores.
The final grace calls on the university to stop accepting research funding, sponsorship or other collaborations with fossil fuel companies that continue to build new fossil fuel infrastructure or seek new fossil fuel reserves. It also demands that the university cut ties with companies that remain part of industry 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 favour. “We hope they keep those who have no voice in this ballot in mind,” said Zak Coleman, a campaign spokesman and the former undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students’ Union.
Emily Sandford, an astrophysics researcher at Cambridge, said she felt a generational responsibility to respond to climate. “I now have students who grew up in a world where there was never any climate change,” she said. “The faculty and those in power have dropped the ball, and it’s time we acted.”
Essential news from The Times
The coming mega storm: No one knows exactly when, but a massive, week-long explosion of rain and snow, fueled by climate change, could hit California in the coming decades. The Times used data from a new study to visualize what it might look like.
A generation gap: As the climate bill goes to President Biden’s desk, young activists are warning lawmakers the work isn’t done yet.
What’s on the climate bill: We have a detailed analysis of what the Inflation Reduction Act entails.
‘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 conservationist dies: The murder of a forest ranger who protected rhinoceroses in South Africa sparked fears that poaching syndicates are becoming more violent.
Windfall oil gains: Saudi Aramco announced that its second quarter profit is almost double that of last year. It predicted that oil demand would grow for the rest of the decade.
Upgrade or pay: Developers in New York are rushing to curb emissions in large buildings to meet limits set by a recent law. Landlords who do not keep to the agreements on time can expect high fines.
From the Opinion section
The case against carbon capture: According to Charles Harvey and Kurt House, the technology could boost the extraction of more oil and gas.
Before You Go: Can an Electric Truck Win Converts?
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 overall win: It’s set to revive production in the Midwest and South while reducing America’s greenhouse gas emissions. The problem is that the trucks are expensive and there aren’t enough to meet the demand at the moment. Much depends on whether those problems can be overcome.
Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.
Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.
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