Fossil fuel funded climate research is as detrimental to academic freedom as it is to our planetPIXABAY

On January 12th, the UAE announced that oil chief Sultan Ahmed Al Jaber will lead the COP28 climate talks in Dubai. Al Jaber is the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, the world’s 12th largest oil company by production. This presents a blatant conflict of interest between the aim of the conference – climate change mitigation – and its appointed president’s personal interests. How much can we trust that he will champion the strict measures against oil and gas expansion which our atmosphere so urgently needs?

This decision to put oil representatives in charge of the microphone is not without precedent. At COP27, fossil fuel lobbyists outnumbered the combined delegations of the ten most climate-impacted countries. Critics have likened this to inviting tobacco manufacturers to a cancer prevention conference. The invasion of annual COPs by fossil fuel figureheads is indicative of the far-reaching and insidious influence which Big Oil exercises across all arenas of climate change prevention. Their vested interests dominate climate negotiations, corrupt research and sway government policy and public opinion in their favour.

“Funding academic research is a highly effective greenwashing tactic”

This includes Cambridge. Although the University of Cambridge committed to divesting from fossil fuels in 2020, it still accepts millions of pounds from these corporations to fund academic research related to climate change. At first glance this sounds reasonable: in order to move away from destructive energy practices, you might argue, we must involve the fossil fuel companies we currently rely on.

Our energy transition cannot be negotiated without cooperation from the fossil fuel industry, but they shouldn’t be calling the shots. Fossil fuel companies continue to advocate for the model of relentless extraction which got us into this mess. They have no place at the table of international climate negotiations, nor can they be allowed to finance research which should make us less dependent on their practices.

Peer-reviewed studies have consistently demonstrated that fossil fuel-funded research will produce findings biased towards the continuation of fossil fuel production. Funding academic research is ultimately a highly effective greenwashing tactic which grants oil corporations a social licence to exist.


Mountain View

Leading academics demand universities ban fossil fuel funded climate research

Fossil fuel corporations are not innovators in this respect: recent investigations have exposed sinister parallels between their publicity tactics and those of tobacco giants. From the 1950s onwards, tobacco manufacturers actively engineered research controversies so that the link between cancer and smoking would be seen as only one side of a contentious debate, rather than a simple truth.

Just as Big Tobacco conspired for decades to muddy the scientific consensus on smoking, so too does Big Oil continue to bribe researchers to downplay the urgency of climate action. In 2015 it was revealed that the research of climate-change denier Willie Soon, used in the US Congress, was entirely funded by fossil fuel companies, a conflict of interest he had concealed. New evidence reveals the petroleum and tobacco industries even shared the same scientists and publicists, routinely referring keen researchers to one another and rewarding them generously for their disinformation. Lobbying works, both above and below board; only recently has the extent of tobacco giants’ interference come to light.

“The University Council recently refused to let fellows vote to cut off its fossil fuel funding”

We cannot afford to allow this dangerous industry-research relationship to develop unopposed: it is as detrimental to academic freedom as it is to our climate change solutions. Student activist group Cambridge Climate Justice has worked with academics to campaign for fossil-free research at Cambridge. Shockingly, the University Council recently refused to let fellows vote on a motion to cut off its fossil fuel funding.

Achieving sustainability requires a just transition which is not in the interests of the fossil fuel companies currently bending our climate solutions to their will. Accepting Big Oil’s dirty money is both immoral and counterproductive: let’s stop saving them a seat at the table.