From the Community | Letter to the University President: The School of Sustainability and Climate should refuse funding from fossil fuel companies

March 30, 2021, 11:34 p.m.

Dear President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, 

We are writing to you as students dedicated to Stanford University’s mission of contributing to the ethical, ecological and environmental wellbeing of the world, our local communities and future generations. We would like to thank you for your leadership in forming the new School of Sustainability and Climate (SoSaC). We are excited about the school’s possible collaborations across the University and with the community to pursue an equitable, just and swift transition to a sustainable world. 

We would also like to use this letter to express some of our concerns regarding the influence of fossil fuel sponsors in academic research at Stanford, and make the case for why Stanford should reject all gifts from the fossil fuel industry to the new School of Sustainability and Climate. We outline this proposal in our petition, which students, staff, faculty and alumni are welcome to sign.

In our conversations with the SoSaC Blueprint Advisory Committee, we found that there has been no public commitment to mitigating financial conflicts of interest from the fossil fuel industry. There is a real risk that, in a school meant to generate climate solutions, progress will be limited by such contradicting incentives.

Our concern stems from the fact that fossil fuel funding is prevalent in existing Stanford environment and energy research. For example, the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) ran from 2003 to 2018 with a stated goal to “identify promising research opportunities for low-emissions, high-efficiency energy technologies.” GCEP’s sponsors included ExxonMobil, Dupont, Bank of America and Toyota. The Strategic Energy Alliance, managed by Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy, was created in 2018. Its goal is to “accelerate the pace of this transformation involving clean energy development, deployment, scale-up and finance.” Of the four founding members, three are oil companies: Shell, ExxonMobil and Total. On the whole, Stanford has accepted tens of millions of dollars from fossil fuel companies to conduct research since 2011, according to the Stanford Stanford Electronic Research Administration (SeRA) database.

However, the fossil fuel industry has ulterior motives for funding research at Stanford. By accepting funding from fossil fuel companies for research, however well-intentioned, Stanford becomes complicit in the fossil fuel industry’s greenwashing tactics and its well-documented history of climate denial. Major players such as Exxon, Shell and the American Petroleum Institute understood the severity of the climate crisis as many as four decades ago. However, these companies have worked tirelessly to obstruct progress and sow the seeds of disinformation in the years since. As a memo by the American Petroleum Institute remarked in 1998, manufacturing doubt is their key objective: “Victory will be achieved” when average citizens begin to “recognize uncertainties in climate science.” 

More recently, the fossil fuel industry realized that it could no longer support climate denial while maintaining credibility, so its denial strategy shifted to framing itself as the solution to climate change. Fossil fuel companies publicly voice their commitment to fighting climate change and gain their “social license to operate” by funding climate research, but the bulk of their actions don’t walk the talk.

While the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has urged nations to decrease emissions by 7.6% annually over the next decade, fossil fuel companies continue to burn oil and gas at a record pace. In fact, they plan to increase production by 7% over the next four years instead, pouring nearly $1.4 trillion into new oil and natural gas projects. Meanwhile, these companies have devoted only a fraction of their budgets to alternative energy (as low as 1.3% by some estimates). In the three years since the Paris Climate Accords, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies spent over $1 billion to delay, control or block climate legislation. These efforts mimic those of Big Tobacco; indeed, the two industries have historically employed the same lobbyists and utilized the same tactics.

Public acceptance isn’t the only boon the industry gains by funding research. They also gain a concerning level of influence over research priorities. Stanford Industrial Affiliate Program members are represented on program governance boards and can customize research based on company interests. Additionally, as Dr. Benjamin Franta explains, industry sponsors selectively influence the landscape of research by ensuring that “safe” research areas get funded more often than research areas that could threaten the industry’s business.

We argue that accepting funding from the fossil fuel industry poses an inherent conflict of interest for the School of Sustainability and threatens researchers’ academic integrity. The fossil fuel industry’s primary sources of revenue are the very products we must phase out in order to meaningfully tackle climate change. The School of Sustainability is a product of Stanford’s Long Range Vision (LRV) for Sustainability, reflecting the Stanford community’s widespread desire to pave the way towards sustainability and environmental justice. Thus, the school must take all possible measures to avoid conflicts of interest that could undermine this vision. 

For these reasons, we ask that the Stanford School of Sustainability and Climate adopt the following standards when sourcing funds, both now and in perpetuity: 

  1. The School of Sustainability and Climate will not accept gifts from or form research partnerships with any fossil fuel companies or their subsidiaries. FTSE Russell defines fossil fuel companies as companies that explore, own or directly extract carbon reserves. 
  2. All funding sources of research in SoSaC should be publicly acknowledged, both in published papers and in any website or news promotion of the research. 

We believe that following these standards is necessary for protecting the integrity of the research conducted within the School of Sustainability and Climate. We urge you to ensure impartial research and minimize conflicts of interest by avoiding the financial influence of fossil fuel companies in the new SoSaC. We would also like to acknowledge and support existing calls to ensure strong institutionalized support for environmental justice work in the new SoSaC. 

If you are a student, staff, faculty member or alum who supports this proposal, please sign our petition here to call on the School of Sustainability to refuse fossil fuel funding! We look forward to having a center on campus focused on sustainability and a swift transition to a decarbonized society. 


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