From the Community | We can’t afford business as usual 

Oct. 3, 2022, 11:22 p.m.

Recently The Stanford Daily reported on a demonstration that took place at the opening of the Doerr School of Sustainability. As one of the demonstrators, I would like to offer my perspective on the event. The demonstration drew attention to the fact that Doerr has stated it will accept funding from companies that have publicly pledged to expand extraction and marketing of fossil fuels. We were there to argue that we cannot afford to become entangled with companies who only seek to defer our reckoning with an existential, human-made crisis. We reject the deadly shell game the oil companies are engaged in — using projects like the Doerr School to draw attention away from their destructive actions.

Dean Arun Majumdar announced that Doerr would accept money from oil companies, and not engage in “advocacy.”  But far from refraining from “advocacy,” by accepting fossil fuel money, Doerr is in fact offering free advertising and a burnished image to these polluters, effectively advocating for them and greenwashing their actions. Just look at the webpage that Doerr uses to advertise its energy seminars: in the lower right-hand corner you will find the Chevron logo, captioned with “Thank you for a decade of Energy Seminar sponsorship.”

The protest was organized by a group called the Coalition for a True School of Sustainability, which is asking Majumdar to make good on the School’s claim: ‘We aim to integrate diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the fabric of our educational mission… this community will reflect different worldviews and be attuned to the environmental justice and social issues that are fundamental to fruitful learning and lead to better scientific solutions for our planet.”  

We marched to the event, planning to speak at 4:15 p.m. and end before the President was slated to make his comments. We stood in a cordoned-off area, a grassy knoll beneath the deck of Mitchell Earth Sciences, where the reception was taking place. We announced our program and began making our remarks. Though we used bullhorns to try to make our voices heard above the music at the reception, that music and the chatter of the celebrants guaranteed that few people heard what we were saying, and not a single person left the deck to come down to hear us. Finally, we demanded that they turn off the music and allow us to finish.

Now you will say, well, it was a reception, after all. It was their party. Why “interrupt”? And—perhaps most importantly, “what did you expect?”  Put plainly, for us and millions globally, business-as-usual is no longer an option. We hoped that Doerr would act as it said it would act — that is, inclusively.  But Doerr chose not to listen to us, preferring to drown out our voices and have the party continue. For us, this is a vivid metaphor for the way those in power have chosen to deal with the climate catastrophe. Too many schools, organizations, and governments have bought the oil companies’ bogus narrative that this crisis can be adequately addressed by channeling energy and money into miscellaneous, small fixes that allow fossil fuel companies to continue to drill, extract, and market their product unimpeded.

Last year, the U.S. Congress felt it was time to know more about the proliferation of climate misinformation. House Oversight and Reform Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) subpoenaed four major oil companies, saying, “I see no choice but to continue our committee’s investigation until we see the truth.” The oil companies were not exactly forthcoming. Scientific American reported:

The committee initially requested documents by Sept. 30 (Greenwire, Sept. 16). When the companies did not fully comply, Maloney said, they were warned that the panel would take further action if they did not produce sufficient paper ahead of yesterday’s hearing.

“Unfortunately, none of the six entities can produce the substantial portion of the key documents the committee requested,” Maloney said. “Instead, they produced reams of other documents, many of which were publicly available.”

In other words, fossil fuel companies stonewalled the committee.

In an opinion piece, Robert J. Brulle noted that the investigation would likely do more than expose the role of oil companies in spreading climate misinformation — he believed “a raft of other major industries are equally complicit”:

In 1988, the dramatic testimony of Dr. James Hansen established the reality and dangers of continued increases in carbon emissions and called for government action to address global warming. In response, corporations with strong ties to the production and use of fossil fuels — acting in coordination with trade associations, conservative think tanks, conservative philanthropic foundations and public relations firms — mounted sophisticated and effective lobbying and public relations efforts to obstruct political action on climate.  For over 33 years, these efforts have successfully blocked meaningful legislation and regulation of carbon emissions, both in the United States and at the global level. The result is that the world is on a course to likely catastrophic climate change.

Activists like myself believe that schools like Doerr that accept fossil fuel money instead of staying true to their educational function and commitment to neutral and unbiased science join this corporate cadre.

Now, what did the investigation yield?  On Sept. 14, just two weeks ago, in a Congressional Memorandum, the committee disclosed what many of us suspected all along:

Despite knowing the truth about climate change, fossil fuel companies continued to contradict prevailing scientific knowledge and inject confusion into the public debate over climate change… At the Committee’s historic hearing in October 2021, fossil fuel executives finally admitted under oath that climate change is real, that burning fossil fuels contributes to it, and that this is an existential threat to the planet. Yet none of them would pledge to end their financial support for efforts to block meaningful action on climate change.

One particular piece of evidence stands out:

[An internal Shell messaging] guidance urges Shell employees, “Please do not give the impression that Shell is willing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to levels that do not make business sense.”

As Stanford alum and Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes writes in Scientific American:

Funding strongly influences what kinds of scientific questions are asked and what kinds of answers are deemed plausible, credible and worthy of further pursuit. Ample scientific evidence demonstrates that the interests of funders influence academic findings, even when researchers strive to be objective.

These and other concerns were brought to Doerr’s attention by the Coalition. No reply. And Stanford has remained silent. For some reason, both have placed their trust in fossil fuel companies, and in dismissing this issue, Stanford is shamefully behind the curve.

Right now, Cambridge University is holding a university-wide vote on the issue. Luke Kemp, a researcher who studies climate risk at Cambridge and one of the academics who called for the vote said, “By working with the fossil fuel industry, we’re giving them legitimacy and we’re implicitly endorsing them… This should be utterly uncontroversial for any academic who is clearly and truly concerned about climate change.”

Most importantly, Princeton University has already declared a ban on accepting money from fossil fuel companies.

The Princeton Board of Trustees has voted to dissociate from 90 companies pursuant to a fossil fuel dissociation decision made last year that focused on the most-polluting segments of the industry and on concerns about corporate disinformation campaigns. Indeed, Princeton has decided to rely solely on its own resources — financial and intellectual — to address this critical issue, and it got to this point by actually listening. The Princeton Office of Communications issued this statement:

The board’s vote is the culmination of a community-initiated two-year process that included input from stakeholders across the campus community. The University will also establish a new fund to support energy research at Princeton, in part to offset research funding no longer available because of dissociation.

“Princeton will have the most significant impact on the climate crisis through the scholarship we generate and the people we educate,” said President Christopher L. Eisgruber. “The creation of this new fund is one of several ways that the University is helping to provide Princeton researchers with the resources they need to pursue this work.”

Doerr and Stanford have a choice — will they be willing partners with the oil industry, accepting their well-documented misinformation as fact and their money as clean? Or will they try the Princeton model, and be financially and intellectually independent?

As my colleagues on the faculty and administration gleefully swilled their glasses of chardonnay and nibbled on cheese, I looked at the faces of the young people standing next to me and thought — here’s the difference: faculty and administrators can be complacent. They have well-paying jobs, their children have been raised and likely their mortgages are paid off. Several have industry funding and pet projects to work on. All this, plus the fact that older people have been fortunate to live the vast majority of our years with clean air and water. Lucky us. But the torrid summer we just experienced is likely to be the coolest one we will ever have.

It saddens me that too many of my colleagues lack the will or empathy to understand what kind of planet we are leaving to those who are just starting their adult lives — the very people we have taken the responsibility to teach to be honest: ethical researchers and scholars. In fact, these young people are more mature than we are — history has forced them to grow up at a much faster rate than we had to, in order to confront what we are energetically avoiding by doing business as usual. It is their lives, and their futures, that are most at stake. It seems it is they who are teaching us the most important lessons today. The question is–are we really going to listen?

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor and Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford.

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