From the community | Imagining a different future for the Doerr School

Sept. 27, 2022, 9:36 p.m.

Imagine: Come this fall, the new Doerr School of Sustainability will welcome its first cohort of students onto the Stanford campus. They will be joining a team of leading scholars, practitioners, and students to advance sustainability solutions at the speed and scale required to address the urgent climate crisis. Transdisciplinary scholarship and a commitment to environmental justice will be embedded across research projects. Instead of providing research funding to sustain their current business models, fossil fuel companies will look to the School to implement ambitious and credible action plans aligned with the Paris Agreement, entailing immediate, systems-scale investments in clean energy.

This is not the School we have today. Following the announcement of the new Sustainability School in May, many have questioned the School’s commitment to climate and sustainability solutions, with more than 780 people signing a petition calling on the School to decline future funding from fossil fuel companies.

The Coalition has demanded a transparent process for determining shared values and principles for the School, including open public forums and a commitment to establishing strong criteria for industry funding partners. We have not yet heard a response to these demands.

The Doerr School must take a more proactive approach to address the concerns that have been raised. Here we summarize why the Doerr School’s relationship with the fossil fuel industry is damaging to our university’s reputation, values, and research integrity, and invite the Stanford community to imagine a different future for the Doerr School.

1. Our current stance damages Stanford’s reputation.

It is clearly detrimental to Stanford’s reputation that a new school focused on climate and sustainability issues is entangled with the fossil fuel industry, which has actively undermined action on climate change for decades and continues to do so today. While we cannot change the School’s historical ties to the industry, our future reputation depends on the choices and decisions we make today, including decisions about phasing out partnerships with companies that do not meet the School’s own minimum criteria

2. Partnering with fossil fuel companies undermines the School’s core values.

In addition to its well-documented history of disinformation campaigns, the fossil fuel industry has repeatedly engaged in unethical, corrupt, and polluting practices (see Petrobras, Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil) that have contributed to environmental racism and disproportionate harm to vulnerable communities. Here also lies a clear contradiction to the school’s commitment to environmental justice. How can the School claim to take environmental justice seriously, when it does not hold accountable the very actors who have created many of the problems we are trying to solve? 

If you don’t find the above two arguments convincing, you might say: 

  • Our economies are still dependent on fossil fuels. If not Stanford, who else is better positioned to help the industry transition? Didn’t Ørsted manage to turn around their business to become a leader in renewable energy? 
  • An “all hands on deck” approach ultimately strengthens the Doerr School’s chances of combating the climate crisis. 
  • Industry affiliate programs provide an important funding source, and this funding has led to publications on much-needed climate solutions.

The logic that our economy depends on fossil fuels — and therefore we should help fossil fuel companies be cleaner — breaks down once we consider the disproportionate lobbying and marketing dollars (including a Super Bowl ad) that our partners have spent to lock in fossil-fuel dependency. It took significant external pressure, a failed project, and rising debt levels for a company like Ørsted to turn away from fossil fuels, not the sudden vision that a fossil fuel-free future was possible. 

That vision seems far away when the industry reaped $205 billion in 2021, and stands to gain even more this year since the war in Ukraine (ExxonMobil posting its largest ever quarterly profit of $17.9 billion), with profits going to increase short-term shareholder value over investments in clean energy

And, as a research university, we absolutely cannot compromise on the third argument: 

3. Accepting fossil-fuel funding damages our research integrity.

The influence of industry funding on research lies not only in what gets published, but also in the research not undertaken, the words that remain unspoken, and the questions that do not get asked.

Thus far, our industry-funded research spans oil reservoir exploration and management, enhanced recovery of oil, and hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, marginal contributions to storage and carbon capture research remain part of the industry’s latest strategy to delay true climate action

Despite public statements supporting the Paris Agreement, none of our partners are on track to comply with the Paris Agreement and they have not made commensurate investments in renewable energy. Exxon-Mobil invested only 0.22% of capital expenditures in low-carbon projects between 2010 and 2018, and BP invested only 2.3%, while quietly divesting all of its solar and wind assets by 2013. Meanwhile, their affiliation with Stanford for a fee of $25k-250k a year plus “additional funding” of undisclosed amounts distracts from the millions spent to promote fossil fuels and oppose climate policies, most recently against electric vehicles and CO2 vehicle tailpipe standards

Not only do industry partners claim their contributions to Stanford as a contribution to climate action (see ExxonMobil, BMJ reporting), they have exclusive access to Stanford faculty and students, while members paying a premium are given permanent seats on a governance board that gets to set research priorities in the Natural Gas Initiative (ExxonMobil, Shell, ConocoPhillips), a direct violation of Stanford’s policy.

This is not an equal relationship: Stanford’s fossil fuel industry partners have much more to gain from their affiliation with Stanford, while Stanford becomes a complicit partner in delaying climate action and incrementalism. If we stay silent as Stanford community members, we are equally complicit.

An Alternative Future

We believe the case is clear that the status quo is more damaging to Stanford’s reputation, values, and research integrity than an alternative scenario where the Doerr School proactively revamps its industry affiliate programs, establishes clear and stronger criteria for funders and partners, and commits to transparency in its future funding decisions. 

If we agree on the above, then we can start asking some important questions:

  • What kind of research could we be producing if we rejected funding from fossil-fuel companies? What other careers might students pursue, if their research was not directly tied to recruitment opportunities?
  • If we demanded current funders to stop lobbying against climate policies (and donations to industry associations) as a precondition for joining Stanford’s programs, how many would stay?
  • What new partnerships and funding relationships could we build to truly accelerate climate solutions?
  • If we start with the vision that the future global economy is fossil-fuel free, what steps should we immediately take to achieve that vision?
  • What does a credible and ambitious climate action plan look like? (hint: it’s not net zero by 2050.)
  • How might Stanford leverage its reputation, resources, and expertise to prompt real change in the fossil fuel industry, setting a precedent for other universities to follow? 

Stanford’s actions and words matter. This fall quarter will be critical for laying the foundation for the Doerr School’s future. We hope that you will join us in building a true School of Sustainability that we can all be proud of. 

Three quick actions you can undertake now:

  1. Sign the petition
  2. Get involved and learn more about the Coalition
  3. Join us on September 29th at Mitchell Patio to mark the launch of the Doerr School

Undersigned on behalf of the Coalition:

June Choi (PhD student, Earth System Science)

Bill Gorham (‘74 Stanford alum) 

Gus Greenstein (PhD student, EIPER)

Thom Hersbach (Postdoc, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory1)

1The statements in this article are personal opinions and do not reflect the official views of the US Department of Energy or Stanford University

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