Duke should hold its speakers to its own standards

letter to the editor

The year 2020 began with images of much of the Australian continent on fire. In the second month of 2021, we have seen notoriously hot Texas freeze over, as an unstable polar vortex resulting in snowstorms and power outages for millions of households has caused dozens of deaths. These events are a likely result of anthropogenic climate change. 

Duke has positioned itself as a leader in advancing science, environmentalism and tackling climate change. Yet, as climate chaos reverberates around the world, proving climate scientists right (and they certainly wish they were wrong), Duke is using its resources and platform to elevate the interests of fossil fuel companies and their investors via an academically dishonest guest lecturer. In addition to Duke’s own endowment including investments in fossil fuels from which it has refused to divest, Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy is hosting a lecture by Bjørn Lomborg of the Copenhagen Consensus Center, a professional climate denier whose career has been funded by other climate deniers, from Charles Koch to Exxon Mobil

Lomborg claims he believes in climate change, but his signature book and entire career have been devoted to denying its severity and touting false and dangerous claims that current calls for climate action are not necessary. Consequently, the rhetoric of Lomborg and others like him has kept the world’s economic superpowers from addressing the climate crisis with the urgency and comprehensive solutions that it demands. Countless lives—disproportionately low income and Black, Indigenous and people of color—have already been lost from climate change. We see it in the storms in Texas, the Hurricanes in the Caribbean, the wildfires in California, the “megadrought” in the Southwest—and that’s just the US. The false notion that climate change and its severity is a political issue up for debate is a fallacy promulgated by those with vested interests in the systems and markets that are actively worsening climate change and taking lives. 

Why would Duke use its resources to elevate such a speaker? Lomborg and Duke’s Center for the History of Political Economy have a common link: they are both funded by Charles Koch, an extremely influential multi-billionaire who has spent millions of dollars advancing organizations that actively deny climate change and efforts to mitigate it.

While some of Duke’s signature donors may be pleased by Lomborg’s lecture, our community is not. The former Dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Dr. Bill Chameides, knew in 2009 that Lomborg is not only wrong in his assessments of climate change, but actively dishonest. Duke is ostensibly aware of the risk climate change poses, but still chooses to tailor curricula to the interests of science-denying donors like Koch and others. 

Moreover, Duke prides itself on academic integrity, obligating its students to sign onto the Duke Community Standard, affirming that all signatories will “conduct [themselves] honorably in all [their] endeavors.” A student risks losing their spot as a student at Duke and even being barred from an academic career if they violate this standard and commit academic dishonesty. Lomborg, meanwhile, has had his work deemed “scientifically dishonest”, with his arguments being “based on fantastical numbers that have little or no credibility,” according to the London School of Economics. Lomborg’s career is built on omission of truth, manipulation of data and academic dishonesty. Were he a student at Duke, such work would not be accepted—why should he be held to a lower standard than all of us? In light of the accusations against him, are we intended to receive this speaker as an academically dishonest researcher or an amateur giving an uninformed opinion piece? Or as sponsored content from Charles Koch?

Lomborg, of course, has the right to reach his own conclusions from the scientific data at our disposal and is free to share these conclusions via whatever platform he is given, but it is unacceptable for Duke to provide him such a platform. The world is at a crossroads on the climate crisis: will we choose division, pseudoscience, and the profits of those who have a vested interest in the destruction of our planet? Or, will we stand for scientific integrity, reason, and human rights, and with them, just solutions to address the massive crisis we are facing and build a better world in the process? Duke, a multi-billion dollar institution and producer of world-changers, is at the crux of that crossroad. What will we choose? 

The undersigned call on the Center for the History of Political Economy at Duke to end its conflicts of interest by denying platforms to Koch-funded diffusers of misinformation. We call on Duke as a whole to commit to its professed academic standards and deny platforms to climate deniers. And we call on the University to continue to commit to comprehensive climate action, including by directing DUMAC to divest the endowment of fossil fuels.

If you would like to join the below list in signing onto this letter as a Duke faculty member or student organization, please email sunrisedurham@gmail.com!

In solidarity, 

William H. Schlesinger

James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Biogeochemistry

Dean Emeritus, The Nicholas School of the Environment

Member, U.S. National Academy of Sciences

Miguel Rojas Sotelo, Ph.D.

Drew Shindell

Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Earth Science

James S. Clark

Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Environment

Paul A. Baker

Professor, Earth and Climate Sciences 

Fellow, American Geophysical Union

Fellow, Geological Society of America

Ram Oren

Nicholas Distinguished Professor of Earth System Science 

Richard F. Kay, Professor 

Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and

Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences

Dr. Danielle Way

Adjunct Assistant Professor, Nicholas School of the Environment, Duke University

Associate Professor and Member of the College of the Royal Society of Canada, 

Department of Biology, University of Western Ontario

Justin Wright

Associate Professor of Biology

Sunrise Movement Durham 

The Nicholas School Black and Latinx Club


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