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In the 1970s, scientists at Exxon noticed something troubling: Their industry was warming the planet.
Emissions caused by unchecked extraction were projected to ratchet up the average global temperature, with what the researchers called “potentially catastrophic” results. In fact, these scientists accurately predicted global temperatures jumping about 0.2 degrees Celsius each decade, driving us toward two full degrees Celsius above pre-industrial averages by 2050.
In response to the predictions, Exxon quietly made plans to protect its own operations from sea level rise, and then lied — brazenly, knowingly, unforgivably — for decades, throwing doubt upon climate science they knew was right and thereby shielding their business model from public criticism.
The result? Fossil fuel companies still rake in hundreds of billions of dollars today. The rest of us have inherited a world where, despite the heat waves and devastating floods surrounding us, lawmakers still debate whether human-caused climate change really exists. The disinformation propagated by companies like Exxon has helped set social consensus so far behind scientific consensus that groups of scientists are chaining themselves to government buildings in a desperate bid to drive political action.
Most people I’ve spoken to aren’t surprised by these facts. The fossil fuel industry is a business, after all, and it will do anything to protect its bottom line, even if that requires lying and obfuscating the science.
But most people are surprised when I tell them that Harvard partners with these very same fossil fuel companies in its own climate research.
In its 2023 sustainability action plan, Harvard laid out its plans for “How We Lead” on the climate crisis, and concluded that the University can make its principal impact through research and teaching. But a significant amount of that impact is sponsored by the very companies that benefit from climate misinformation and further fossil fuel extraction.
Between 2010 and 2020, Harvard publicly received at least $20 million from four major fossil fuel companies. And that’s a lower bound: Harvard doesn’t always reveal the sponsors of its research, so much of the information available comes from fossil fuel companies’ tax forms rather than what Harvard admits.
Where did the money from last decade go? It’s hard to say for sure where Harvard distributed these funds, given the lack of transparency. But fossil fuel companies publicly sponsor — among other places — the Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, the Harvard Environmental Economics Program, the Environment and Natural Resources Program, and the Corporate Responsibility Initiative (whose “Corporate Leadership Group” through time has included Chevron and ExxonMobil).
Some of the directors of these research projects also work with fossil fuel companies. But even academics who have never engaged with fossil fuel companies can be affected by industry funding. Even if they take fossil fuel industry funding with the best of intentions, unconscious bias can still influence their research. This phenomenon is well documented — for example, fossil fuel funding empirically increases research favorability toward natural gas.
When a corporation funds academic work, there is an inherent power imbalance at play. No matter how objective they seek to be, researchers know they are beholden to that corporation for funding. That’s why, all the way back in 1915, the American Association of University Professors considered freedom from vested influence by external interests a key component of academic freedom.
Harvard has restricted industry donations before in service to academic freedom. Since 2002, Harvard has held a policy rejecting research funding from the tobacco industry, which, like the fossil fuel industry, has historically spread misinformation on public health.
Yet tax forms and giving reports indicate that Harvard has accepted at least a million dollars from the fossil fuel industry for public health research, despite the numerous connections between public health issues and climate change.
Why do we accept fossil fuel funding? We know this industry is not above manipulating science to turn a profit. When we have centers like the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability, independently endowed to the tune of $200 million, we clearly don’t need to expose our academics to that manipulation.
Some universities are already taking action to protect their research. Last fall, Princeton announced that it would reject funding from 90 fossil fuel companies. Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam announced an even stronger dissociation this April, refusing any research partnerships with fossil fuel companies that don’t follow the Paris Climate Accords. And this July, Cambridge University received a report that recommended a similar end to collaboration with certain highly damaging fossil fuel companies.
Nearly a thousand individual academics, including many Harvard affiliates, have signed onto an open letter calling for fossil free research at their institutions. The call is growing stronger every day: For the sake of good climate science, academia needs to cut fossil fuels out.
And Harvard needs to lead. Harvard’s wealth and prestige make it the perfect place to conduct cutting-edge research into climate solutions. But as long as the fossil fuel industry has its hands in our research, dragging us backward as they’ve been doing to the world since the 1970s, Harvard will not be a leader. It’s time for Harvard to take the next step since divestment. It’s time for fossil free research.
Phoebe G. Barr ’24 is a History and Literature concentrator in Lowell House and an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard. Her column, “Harvard’s Role Amid Climate Chaos,” appears biweekly on Thursdays.
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