How Fossil Fuel Dollars Warped University Climate ResearchHistorians in the News
tags: history of science, climate change
As the effects of climate change become daily more apparent, universities are busy declaring climate emergencies, divesting their financial assets in fossil fuel, and pledging to meet ambitious climate goals. At the same time, however, these institutions are accepting hundreds of millions of dollars from the fossil-fuel industry. In a grim irony, many of the scientists and scholars tasked with helping us survive the climate crisis are funded by companies actively working to delay climate action.
In 2011 the MIT Energy Initiative released a white paper, The Future of Natural Gas, which advocated government investment in natural gas as a “bridge to a low carbon future.” The authors — one of whom later became secretary of energy — failed to disclose numerous ties to industry. The Energy Institute itself was funded by ExxonMobil, Saudi Aramco, Shell, Chevron, and other oil and gas companies — including Schlumberger, which counts among its directors the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s president, L. Rafael Reif.
Yet despite these conflicts of interests, the report came to function as an “independent” confirmation of industry’s message. In 2014, for example, it was included among supporting documents compiled by Energy in Depth — a public-relations front for the oil industry — in a successful bid to persuade Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, to lease mineral rights for gas drilling. And its ideas also surfaced in President Barack Obama’s 2014 State of the Union address, which claimed that natural gas could be a “bridge” to a clean energy future.
A more recent example is the 2022 Supreme Court decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to restrict greenhouse gases. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurring opinion references an article by Susan Dudley, director of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center. The center’s funders include the Koch Brothers, Searle Freedom Trust, and the ExxonMobil Foundation, all large backers of climate-change denialism. Nowhere in the article is Dudley’s funding disclosed.
Such examples are glimpses into a careful strategy of sowing doubt. In the late 1990s, the American Petroleum Institute developed a multimillion-dollar plan to derail government action on climate change by playing up the notion that the science remained “uncertain.” According to a 1998 memo, the program’s goal was “undercutting the ‘prevailing scientific wisdom’” in part by providing research funding for projects that would offer “a complete scientific critique” of the research and conclusions” of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We are now witnessing the fruits of that project.
In the decades since, API members and allies have funneled billions of dollars into academic research. Scholarly articles as well as investigative reports from student groups at Cambridge, George Washington, Harvard, Oxford, Princeton, and Stanford detail the jaw-dropping sums at stake. The Energy Biosciences Institute, for example — a research collaboration of three public research institutions — began with a half billion-dollar gift from British Petroleum.
What does this money buy fossil-fuel companies? A better reputation? Yes. A chance at intentionally or unintentionally biasing research outcomes? Yes. But it does much more. In essence, the millions of dollars create a kind of shadow academic world, one woven inextricably into the university. It secures favorable white papers, journals, societies, public-policy comments, courtroom testimony, and front groups that attack what the industry sees as damaging science.