In June, Harvard announced that it would establish the Salata Institute for Climate and Sustainability. The institute aims to connect and bolster climate-change initiatives across the university, in large part by supporting related research. With this institute’s creation comes a new and crucial opportunity for Harvard to demonstrate climate leadership. Amid today’s unprecedented climate emergency and a global energy crisis, Harvard can lead the way in protecting the integrity of the research we urgently need to usher in a just, renewable energy economy and ensure the academic freedom of researchers by implementing a ban on fossil fuel industry funding for climate research. Doing so would provide a vital safeguard for our planet, communities, and futures.
Right now, fossil fuel funding for climate research is spurring outrage and debate at universities nationwide—and for good reason—as more than 730 academics in an open letter have made clear. At Stanford, students, faculty, and alumni are calling on the university’s new Doerr School of Sustainability to refuse industry funding, after the administration stated that it would both take money from and work with the oil and gas giants driving climate breakdown. As Stanford doctoral student Celina Scott-Buechler and recent alumnus Ada Statler put it, this policy makes the school “a gift to fossil fuel companies.” Their point cannot be overstated. By welcoming these companies, Stanford provides them crucial access to the production of knowledge and thought that will shape our understanding of the solutions urgently needed to address the climate crisis. It grossly dismisses these companies’ dismal records on sustainability and environmental justice and instead helps legitimate their deadly business models.
So long as Harvard fails to commit its climate initiatives, including the new Salata Institute, to a rejection of fossil fuel funding and partnerships, they will have the exact same effect. Already, Harvard gifts the industry the immense reputational rewards and access to public discourse and policy afforded by some of its most prestigious and explicitly policy-focused climate and environmental programs. These include the Harvard Environmental Economics Program and Harvard Project on Climate Agreements, which have been funded by Chevron, Shell, and Duke Energy. They also include the Harvard Kennedy School’s Corporate Responsibility Initiative, which “explores the intersection of corporate responsibility, corporate governance, public policy, and international development”—an intersection that, while not ostensibly about climate change, can bear heavily on climate and energy policy—and boasts Chevron and ExxonMobil among its sponsors. Meanwhile, Harvard researchers continue to be leading voices in exposing these companies’ past and present efforts to stymy climate action, and face attacks from the same companies that Harvard welcomes as sponsors of competing research.
As a university that claims to care deeply about addressing the climate crisis and its deeply unequal impacts, Harvard’s continued embrace of oil and gas giants may seem confounding. But Harvard’s coziness with Big Oil should come as no surprise when several members of the university’s board of trustees have close financial ties to the industry, and one of its highest-ranking sustainability policy advisors also sits on the board of ConocoPhillips, the largest crude oil producer in Alaska. After inquiring into the Salata Institute’s policy on the permissibility of fossil fuel industry funding and research partnerships, Harvard spokesperson Jason Newton simply referred to the institute’s launch date in the fall of 2022. Beyond that, he stated, the university had no comment.
Yet Harvard has the potential to break ties with these companies in a way that could have ripple effects across the globe. The impact of its divestment commitment, which came only after 10 years of sustained activism, was quickly demonstrated by a slew of similar commitments from major asset managers including Boston University and the MacArthur Foundation. Moreover, with current Harvard President Lawrence Bacow stepping down and Harvard Corporation Senior Fellow William Lee recently departing, the moment is ripe for new leadership with a new era of more ethical, transparent, and democratic governance. That era starts with the next Harvard president and recently appointed Senior Fellow Penny Pritzker heeding the calls of its students, faculty, and alumni to commit the university to fossil-free research.
Harvard has already set a precedent for this policy’s implementation. Its commitment to reject investments in companies that explore for or develop further fossil fuel reserves—in other words, fossil fuel majors, none of whom have aligned themselves with Paris Agreement goals and many of whom are working to block climate policy—suggests a clear baseline for the companies that a climate research funding ban should cover.
The university can and must go further, however, to protect its research from the industry’s polluting influence by extending this ban to cover the trade associations and right-wing organizations fueling climate denial and delay, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch family foundations. Moreover, a fossil-free research policy would follow naturally from that long held by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Since 2002, the school has refused tobacco industry funding for research given the industry’s record of misleading the public about its products’ harmful impacts and the intractable conflict of interest between its core business model and the school’s research aims—clear parallels to the fossil fuel industry.
This isn’t a question of Big Oil’s credibility. The industry’s minuscule expenditures on renewable energy relative to fossil fuels and rampant greenwashing make its deadly priorities all too clear. This is a question of Harvard’s credibility and that of elite academia more broadly. To take fossil fuel industry money for climate research is to take part in the industry’s franchise of climate carnage. Saying no to it is a crucial step toward realizing the full potential and fundamental mission of university climate research to accelerate an equitable and sustainable world.
As Harvard Vice Provost for Climate and Sustainability James Stock recently said, “The challenges of the climate crisis are immense and urgent…Harvard has a unique responsibility to lead in addressing these challenges.” Well, Harvard, here’s your chance: ban fossil fuel funding now.