As top universities divest, Big Oil still infiltrates academia
The next challenge for divestment movements: what to do about the industry’s continued influence over climate research programs at major academic institutions.
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Regulatory policy is increasingly made with the participation of experts, especially academics. A regulated firm or industry should be prepared whenever possible to coopt these experts… This activity requires a modicum of finesse; it must not be too blatant, for the experts themselves must not recognize that they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action.
So reads “Coopt the Experts,” a 1978 handbook written for “regulated industries” by Stanford and Northwestern University economics professors Bruce M. Owen and Ronald Braeutigam. This excerpt is cited in Stanford researcher Ben Franta’s new paper revealing a vastly under scrutinized but key frontier for Big Oil’s climate disinformation campaigns: the field of economics.
Franta’s paper, “Weaponizing economics: Big Oil, economics consultants and climate policy delay,” pulls back the curtain on the widely-cited economic studies that estimate the supposedly enormous costs of climate action — and were used by the fossil fuel industry, its lobbyists, and even former president Trump to assert that attempts to implement climate regulation would threaten jobs and the economy. These analyses, largely presented to the public as independent research, conveniently ignored both the benefits of potential climate policy and the disastrous costs of doing nothing.
Lo and behold, the consultants producing those studies were bankrolled by none other than Big Oil.
Franta’s research focuses on Charles River Associates, a group of economic consultants that played a pivotal role in advising against climate policy for decades — from the Kyoto Protocol, a binding international climate accord, to the watered-down Paris Agreement and everything in between. The group, it turns out, was funded by the American Petroleum Institute, the behemoth oil and gas trade association now being sued over — and asked to testify before Congress regarding — its role in deceiving the public and policymakers about climate change.
“The scientific merchants of doubt have lost a lot of their cache and their influence, but these economists are still doing the same thing,” Franta told me. He emphasized that the problem isn’t just one consulting firm: to this day, a wide array of economic think tanks and academic centers rely on a set of industry-driven assumptions that are designed to produce an anti-regulatory result. “This isn’t just a historical curiosity,” he said.
While Big Oil’s web of influence over economic research centers at major American universities is mainly kept quiet, it’s a testament to how deep the fossil fuel industry’s efforts to manipulate public understanding and policy outcomes on the climate crisis have permeated. Today, major oil and gas companies like BP, Exxon, Chevron and Shell — who have been sued by a growing number of cities, counties, and states for lying about their role in the climate crisis — are listed as founding members and sponsors for climate engineering, policy and economic research centers at Stanford, Princeton, MIT, and other elite institutions.
“It’s come to the point where if you’re at one of these universities and you want to work on climate change, it becomes difficult to do so without being funded by the industry,” Franta said. “Which means that at least indirectly you need the blessing of the fossil fuel industry to do your work.”
So what happens when an industry holds this much power over our ability to access accurate information and solve the world’s most pressing problems?
The question is especially timely for universities like Harvard, which recently announced that it would divest its endowment from fossil fuels after a decade of hard-fought work by its student, faculty and alumni-run coalition, Divest Harvard, of which Ben Franta is a co-founder. Like many other universities today, the group spent years beating up against Big Oil’s influence. In a legal complaint filed with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, Divest Harvard argued that the university’s fossil fuel investments violated its fiduciary duties as a charitable nonprofit.
As explained in Divest Harvard’s complaint, the industry holds significant power in Harvard’s governance structure as well. To cite just one example, attorney Ted Wells, who represents Exxon in climate liability lawsuits, is a prominent Harvard trustee.
While a now-rapidly increasing number of universities are taking the important step of divestment, the fossil fuel industry is still investing in some of those same universities as a last ditch effort to save their business as usual.
Suhaas Bhat, an undergraduate student at Harvard and member of its divestment movement, pointed out that Harvard’s school of public health doesn’t take money from Big Tobacco. But its Environmental Economics program lists BP and Shell as sponsors.
“The tobacco industry, like the fossil fuel industry, spent decades falsifying science and attacking the truth in the name of profit,” said Bhat. “Why don't Harvard's other schools have the same policy for taking money from the fossil fuel industry?”
According to Bhat, Harvard’s acceptance of fossil fuel money will be a crucial target for the movement going forward. “The structural problem of having to bite the hand that feeds you constantly in order to do your research is a big one — it puts intellectual skew on things,” Bhat said. “The people who control the grants control the questions asked.”
“One of our main goals is to uncover these relationships at Harvard, ask for institutional transparency, and hopefully move towards a Harvard that does not take money from these institutions that we firmly believe hold primary responsibility in the climate crisis.”
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