From the community | Open letter: Doerr School of Sustainability should cut ties with the fossil fuel industry

May 18, 2022, 7:53 p.m.

Nina Berlin Rubin, Marius von Essen, Anna Gomes, Brian Rogers and Laurel Regibeau-Rockett are Ph.D. candidates in Earth System Science.

Stanford recently announced that donors have contributed nearly $1.7 billion to establish the Doerr School of Sustainability, the University’s first new school in 70 years. While these funds will support crucial research related to the climate crisis, the administration of the new school has made clear that it will continue accepting financial contributions from the fossil fuel industry.

Stanford’s decision to maintain its ties to the fossil fuel industry is incompatible with the new school’s focus on actionable solutions to address climate change. Let’s be clear: fossil fuel companies’ contributions to universities such as Stanford are not only philanthropic. These donations are part of a carefully crafted smokescreen, one that disguises their role in a crisis they’re perpetuating, one that helps them gain false legitimacy, and one that wins them influence on climate change-related research. 

Over the last several months, we’ve developed an open letter and accompanying petition for the Stanford community to sign, calling on the School of Sustainability to decline funding from fossil fuel companies. This is an ask with an immense amount of support from the community: in a recent survey, graduate students in the School of Earth ranked declining funding from problematic or polluting industries such as fossil fuel companies as the most important measure for the new school to implement. With so much at stake for current and future generations facing the impacts of climate change, it’s crucial that leading institutions like Stanford use their influence and resources to signal the urgent need for climate action. For the Doerr School, this can start with changing attitudes towards funding from the fossil fuel industry. 

In order to truly align with its mission, it is critical that the Doerr School of Sustainability be sustainable not only in name, but also in action. By sharing our open letter below, we hope to motivate others here at Stanford to take action and speak out in support of a better world. If you’d like to share your support, you can sign the petition here

— Graduate Student Advisory Committee, Department of Earth System Science

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Dear Dr. Arun Majumdar, Dean of the Doerr School of Sustainability,

Congratulations on your recent appointment as Dean of the newly established Doerr School of Sustainability. We are grateful for your leadership, vision and career dedicated to a sustainable energy future.

The formation of this new School marks a historic opportunity for Stanford University to take a bold effort toward mitigating climate change. Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and the Environment relies heavily on fossil fuel funding, and we believe such funding represents an inherent conflict of interest, is incompatible with the University’s core academic and social values, and supports industry greenwashing.

We, the undersigned faculty, students, postdocs, staff and alumni of Stanford University, therefore call for the Doerr School of Sustainability and affiliated institutions to decline funding from fossil fuel companies. Instead, the School should seek out partnerships with organizations and companies who are fully aligned with Stanford’s vision of achieving carbon neutrality. We want to note that our call applies to the Doerr School of Sustainability and affiliated institutions, not to the funding obtained by individual faculty members. 

Continuing to accept funding from and collaborating with the fossil fuel industry presents a conflict of interest for the School of Sustainability, as many fossil fuel companies have a proven record of actively obscuring the scientific consensus on climate change, obstructing climate policy and knowingly and willingly perpetuating the climate crisis. Contrary to messages promoted by the industry, the core business of fossil fuel companies remains the production and distribution of fossil fuels, and substantial diversification into clean and renewable energy has not occurred. By collaborating with fossil fuel companies, the School endangers its academic integrity. It is difficult to imagine that fossil fuel companies — whose core business model is diametrically opposed to science-led climate action — are appropriate partners for climate-related research. It is no longer reasonable, let alone ethical, for the School to maintain its ties with the industry most responsible for perpetuating the climate crisis.

Strong collaboration between the School of Sustainability and the fossil fuel industry also threatens our school’s credibility, reputation and attractiveness for current and prospective students, staff and faculty. Though these companies present themselves as leaders in sustainability, their investments in oil and gas continue to dwarf their renewable energy investments, which represent just a small percentage of their total capital expenditure. Collaborating with these companies is inimical to academic institutions’ pledges for climate action. Continued funding from fossil fuel companies threatens to erode trust in Stanford’s scientific and cultural commitment to climate action. The research conducted at Stanford carries significant weight in the conversation around tackling the climate crisis, and the University cannot afford to lose out on the brightest talents or have its voice compromised. 

We appreciate the impacts that a change in the attitude towards fossil fuel funding will have on the Doerr School of Sustainability and its affiliated institutions. However, we believe that Stanford’s location, history and connections to the private sector will enable the School of Sustainability to forge new relations and partnerships that are aligned with its vision and values. Scientific research tells us that the window for action is closing, and we believe that as one of the world’s leading academic institutions, we have a moral responsibility to act.

Sincerely yours, 

The undersigned faculty, students, postdocs, staff and alumni of Stanford University

See the list of signees here.

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