An analysis of more than two dozen U.S. universities’ donor bases reveals the lengths fossil fuel companies have gone to in recent years to manipulate research into the climate emergency, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into some of the country’s schools as scientists struggle to convince policymakers that extractive industries must be reined in.
The Fossil Free Research (FFR) campaign partnered with progressive think tank Data for Progress to conduct the first-of-its-kind study—released Wednesday—of donations from companies including BP, Chevron, and ExxonMobil, and found that between 2010 and 2020, fossil fuel giants donated more than $676 million to 27 universities that lead in the field of climate research.
That figure likely represents “just a fraction of the true total” amount that the industry has contributed to universities, said Geoffrey Supran, associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Miami and a member of the FFR Advisory Board.
“Estimating this massive lower bound figure is a crucial first step towards compelling university officials to reckon with the conflicts of interest inherent in accepting fossil fuel money, especially to fund climate-related research,” said Supran.
The schools that were found to be the top recipients of fossil fuel money include University of California, Berkeley, which took more than $154 million, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which took more than $108 million. Both schools received the vast majority of their fossil fuel funding from BP.
George Mason University and Stanford University both received more than $50 million and nine schools including Harvard University, Princeton University, Iowa State University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) all took more than $10 million each.
“It’s no mistake that fossil fuel companies have continued to make major financial gains through the climate crisis; fossil fuel industry executives, knowingly, have long misled the public about their impact on it and used their profits to manipulate climate research,” said Data for Progress.
The funding of climate research by the very companies worldwide researchers have called on to drastically reduce their carbon emissions presents “a serious conflict of interest,” added the group.
The study pointed to numerous examples of universities using fossil fuel money to complete climate research, including:
- Stanford’s use of the funding to support the work of the Doerr School of Sustainability, allowing funders “to counter claims that they are destroying the planet”;
- MIT’s development of the MIT Energy Initiative, which released a report in 2011 claiming natural gas offers a path to a “low-carbon future” and “dismissing research that found natural gas is, in fact, more harmful due to methane leaks”; and
- George Washington University’s use of roughly $4 million from ExxonMobil, Shell, and Koch Industries to support its Regulatory Studies Center, which “crafts economic arguments that downplay the negative economic impacts of fossil fuel emissions.”
Data for Progress polled 1,230 likely voters between January 20-23 about Fossil Free Research’s findings and determined that universities’ decision to accept fossil fuel funding is detrimental to their public image.
University favorability drops by as much as 23 points when voters learn about fossil fuel donations funding climate research.
We also find that a majority of voters support increasing federal funding for climate research at colleges and universities. pic.twitter.com/xSnt2qM2CU
— Data for Progress (@DataProgress) March 1, 2023
More than 61% of respondents had a favorable view of Harvard before learning about the schools’ fossil fuel funding, compared to 47% after learning.
MIT’s approval rating plummeted by nine points, and GWU’s fell by 11 points.
More than three-quarters of likely voters said they support universities adopting funding transparency policies to ensure readers of the institutions’ climate research are informed about funding sources behind the research.
More than half of respondents said they would support legislation to prevent the federal government from using research with conflicts of interest when crafting policy, and 58% of voters said they supported increased federal funding for climate research at colleges and universities.
“For far too long, the fossil fuel industry has partnered with universities to greenwash its reputation and gain undue influence on climate-related research quietly and in the background, but not anymore,” said Chelsey Gilchrist, an Ohio State University student and FFR board member. “With the help of this report, students will continue to expose campus ties to the fossil fuel industry and hold their universities accountable until Fossil Free Research is won.”
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