CAMBRIDGE, MA: Earlier this semester, activists and the planet scored a historic victory when Harvard University was finally driven to commit to divestment from fossil fuels. But the fight for climate justice at Harvard is far from over. As a new report reveals, industry influences continue to occupy a dangerous foothold across the world of higher education and elite academia — including here at Harvard, thereby putting the institution, and everyone else, at risk. Read the report here.
Due to a lack of true transparency, the exact extent of industry footprint at Harvard is unknown to all but administration. But the available information tells a troubling story: many of the university’s most prominent climate policy initiatives, as the report finds, are awash in fossil fuel money. And with no meaningful plan in place to prevent this money from causing undue influence, it concludes, the institution’s research and academic mission is in grave danger.
Examples include Chevron and Shell funding climate economics research, BP funding oil politics scholarship, Exxon funding the study of corporate social responsibility, a board member of ConocoPhillips also chairing the university sustainability committee and directing environmental programming at the law school, a top Exxon lawyer serving as a university trustee, and fossil fuel fortunes endowing the university’s two major centers for climate policy.
In addition, the report found a troubling lack of transparency about some of these ties: one program, for example, scrubbed funding information from its website after FFDH started making inquires.
“I want my university to take my future and my peers’ futures seriously,” said Ilana Cohen (College ‘23), an organizer with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard (FFDH). “I don’t see how Harvard can do that and simultaneously welcome the companies condemning our futures on campus and even allow these companies to fund vital research around the issues that will shape our chances at a needed energy transition, while also denying us and the broader community a voice in the matter.”
The university’s conflict of interest policies, the report notes, are altogether insufficient to protect academic freedom and independence — a pressing concern, given the industry’s longstanding efforts to manipulate expert consensus, undermine public confidence in science, and personally attack scholars (including Harvard’s own). Moreover, it’s not clear whether the policies that do exist are actually enforced in practice, thereby increasing the potential that industry efforts to threaten academic independence succeed.
“Like the tobacco industry before it, fossil fuel interests have explicitly sought to coopt academia and disrupt the fundamental processes of knowledge production in society. At Harvard and around the country, they seem to have largely succeeded, with vast swathes of climate and energy policy research underwritten by oil and gas money. This is a conflict of interest the size of an oil tanker, and Harvard cannot afford to ignore it. To do so it is to allow our university’s world-class scholars to be exploited as pawns of Big Oil propaganda,” said Harvard researcher Dr. Geoffrey Supran.
Currently, the administration is refusing to meet with students to discuss the path forward following the divestment news, even as members of Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard continue to make clear that they welcome dialogue to help the institution move towards climate leadership. The report marks the first in a series of documents revealing the role of fossil fuel money at Harvard — and just one example of how, as Harvard looks towards the future, it must choose whether it wants to listen to its community and make a difference.
Meanwhile, the Harvard community plans to mobilize around the report’s crucial findings, and other major conflicts of interest in university finances, with an action on Friday, November 12. More details can be found here.
Anyone with information regarding the influence of the fossil fuel industry on campus can share it anonymously with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard through this tip form: tinyurl.com/fossilfueltips. University affiliates and surrounding community members can find more information about researchers’ work at tinyurl.com/fossilfueltipfaq and email firstname.lastname@example.org to get more involved.