From the community | Stanford has a chance at a real School of Sustainability — if it refuses fossil fuel meddling

May 12, 2022, 10:30 p.m.

Celina Scott-Buechler is a Ph.D. student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program for Environment & Resources (E-IPER), where she works to bridge climate science and policy. She is also a senior fellow at Data for Progress.

Yannai Kashtan is currently a doctoral student in the Earth Systems Science program. He is from Oakland, California.

Today marks one week since news of the John Doerr School of Sustainability broke — a new school at Stanford dedicated expressly to sustainability. This was a much-anticipated announcement: for more than a year, students and faculty have eagerly worked alongside administration to envision what a school premised on climate and environmental solution-building might look like. Doerr is Stanford’s first new school in 70 years, and comes as other peer institutions have rolled out their own climate schools. Perhaps most impressively, its founding gift of $1.69 billion is the largest in Stanford’s history, and second largest for any institution of higher education in the U.S. In no uncertain terms, this is a critical and long-overdue step in Stanford’s response to climate change. 

The school is not, however, the golden ticket to climate salvation as many of its proponents would lead us to believe. Its lofty goals, published in a draft today, center on instilling students with three core competencies: systems thinking, transdisciplinarity and values thinking. Worthy goals indeed. The process of developing the new school has itself shirked these principles, however. In his interview with The New York Times, inaugural dean Arun Majumdar is cited saying the new school would work with and accept donations from fossil fuel companies.

Accepting money from fossil fuel interests, even those claiming to diversify their portfolios, fundamentally undermines the school’s core learning competencies, tarnishes its academic reputation and hampers its stated mission of “solving the most complex problems in climate and sustainability.” 

Despite active student opposition to fossil fuel entanglements, the school’s acquiescence is in many ways unsurprising. Funding academic research is a tried and true industry strategy employed to control and stymie scholarship. Their hope — a well-founded one — is that controlling the ivory tower will in turn allow them to control regulation and political change that threatens their business model. As Bruce Owen and Ronald Braeutigam write in their 1978 book “The Regulation Game: Strategic Use of the Administrative Process”:

“Regulatory policy is increasingly made with the participation of experts, especially academics. A regulated firm or industry should be prepared whenever possible to coopt these experts. This is most effectively done by identifying the leading experts in each relevant field and … giving them research grants and the like … [I]t must not be too blatant, for the experts themselves must not recognize that they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action.” 

By donating to climate and sustainability research, industry can control which research gets funded and obtain early access to research directions and results, which gives them time to get ahead of negative press. It also casts them as the good guys in the academic and public eye — all the while chronically underperforming on even the sustainability goals they set for themselves. 

Indeed, the state of fossil fuel money entanglement with climate research parallels tobacco money entanglement with public health research, except that public health researchers are further along in disentangling their research from industry funds. Four years ago, the deans of 19 public health schools collectively signed a statement refusing tobacco funding, stating “both the tobacco industry and Philip Morris International have a long history of funding ‘research’ in ways meant to purposely confuse the public and advance their own interests, aggressively market cigarettes globally, including to children, and persist in their relentless opposition to evidence based tobacco control interventions.”

In a similar act of integrity, last month hundreds of climate and sustainability faculty signed a pledge committing to refuse fossil fuel money because they “believe this funding represents an inherent conflict of interest, is antithetical to universities’ core academic and social values, and supports industry greenwashing. Thus, it compromises universities’ basic institutional integrity, academic freedom, and their ability to address the climate emergency.” There is an increasing awareness of the harms of fossil fuel entanglement with climate research and growing numbers of individual faculty are refusing to accept fossil fuel money. 

Fossil fuel companies have made splashy headlines recently announcing net-zero goals and sustainability targets. If they are willing to change, shouldn’t we collaborate with them, as Dean Majumdar suggests? The Danish company Ørsted is often brought up as an industry poster-child and an implicit argument in favor of industry collaboration. Ørsted began as an oil and gas company, but by 2017 had entirely divested itself of fossil assets and is currently the world’s largest developer of offshore wind power. Shell, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Total, Eni and the other large oil companies from which Stanford has accepted millions are nothing like Ørsted. While claiming to “advance innovative solutions for a lower-emission energy future,” they continue to plow the vast majority of their capital into fossil fuel projects, at odds with the Paris Agreement. Until these companies actually transform themselves into renewable energy companies, their sustainability claims are not to be trusted

Claiming that accepting fossil fuel money is benign fails to recognize the system of industry influence in which the school is a part. Willingness to partner with companies that for decades have acted in bad faith and used academic partnerships as key tools to greenwash their climate-warming and polluting business practices fails to align high-level administrative decisions with the stated values of the school. The most powerful and influential members of the new school should lead by example; if they do not demonstrate systems and values thinking, how are we to expect this of students? 

In addition to contradicting Doerr’s stated competencies, fossil fuel partnership flies in the face of meaningful student input. Over the past year, the transition team has gestured toward (and in some cases promised outright) students having a seat at the table. While at the table, we’ve been clear: the school cannot accept fossil fuel money and still claim to advance climate action. We’ve attended fora, provided written feedback, taken polls. Each time, refusing funding from polluting industries has been one of the most popular policy proposals — one that enables the other changes we desperately need in a new school, including a strong emphasis on environmental and climate justice. 

While the news of the Doerr School of Sustainability is certainly exciting, the value of an institution’s work cannot be extricated from the values upon which it is built. Pledging to accept fossil fuel funding and partner with the very industry that has stalwartly opposed climate action for decades is not only wholly misaligned with the will of students — it promises to feed the same maelstrom of political inaction, mistrust of science and perpetuation of environmental injustice that it claims to counter. A growing coalition of students, faculty, staff and alumni have seen the writing on the wall; we are committed to working with the incoming administration to shape the Doerr School into the “accelerat[or] [for] progress on the … clean energy future.” The question remains if the Stanford administration — and, yes, the Doerrs themselves — share our commitment.

A previous version of this article stated that “last month over 500 climate and sustainability faculty signed a pledge committing to refuse fossil fuel money.” The article has been corrected to say “last month hundreds of climate and sustainability faculty signed a pledge committing to refuse fossil fuel money.” The Daily regrets this error.

The Daily is committed to publishing a diversity of op-eds and letters to the editor. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Email letters to the editor to eic ‘at’ and op-ed submissions to opinions ‘at’

Login or create an account