Duke's commitment is to fossil fuels, not the climate

guest column

The COP28, the annual summit where nations gather to assess the world’s progress in fighting climate change, is currently undergoing its second week. This year’s summit is being held in the United Arab Emirates under the direction of Sultan Al Jaber, an Emirati politician and oil executive who, according to recently discovered documents, is using the event to promote fossil fuel production by lobbying other countries. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres is warning the world that “humanity has opened the gates to hell” by failing to take aggressive actions to mitigate climate change. Our politicians are gathering at a conference where key leaders plan to discuss the expansion of fossil fuels without seemingly any care for how that impacts our future.

Fossil fuel companies soil everything they touch. It was true in the 1980s when they promoted climate denialism despite their own scientists warning otherwise, and it is true now, as they continue to donate millions to campaigns and universities to further their mission and prevent climate action. Thus, for our society to successfully combat climate change and fairly transition to a clean energy economy, we must kick fossil fuel companies out of climate policy discussions, especially at the universities that conduct much of the world’s climate science research.

However, as we demonstrate in our recent report, Duke has received more than $20 million over the past decade from fossil fuel companies and allied foundations to fund research and other university operations. This includes funding from ExxonMobil and Chevron, which was used to sponsor Duke’s Energy Week Conference in 20202021, 2022 and 2023. The conference in 2021 also featured an event with executives from Chevron and another fossil fuel company, helping promote fossil fuels as a viable energy source for the future despite their known contribution to climate change. More concerningly, ExxonMobil has provided a lab in the Pratt School of Engineering with hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund applied mathematics research that is used to improve oil drilling technology.

When it announced the Climate Commitment last year, Duke positioned itself as a leader in the climate education and research space, but this data suggests that the fossil fuel industry may be influencing our school’s research outputs. While donations from fossil fuel companies to climate initiatives may seem to reflect a desire to do better, their motivations are likely profit-driven. Recent studies have shown the findings of academic research funded by fossil fuel companies are often biased toward continuing the global usage of fossil fuels. We cannot trust that research at Duke funded by these companies will accurately reflect the urgency of the clean energy transition. Moreover, fossil fuel companies are unreliable partners in the climate action movement, even when they claim to support decarbonization. Corporations such as Shell and BP committed billions of dollars to supporting renewable energy in 2021, when oil prices were low, but have pulled back on these commitments this year as they have made record profits. Duke needs to cut all ties with fossil fuel companies to ensure that it is actively supporting climate action and decarbonization, rather than playing into the interests of big oil.

In addition to calling for Duke to no longer accept research funding from fossil fuel companies, we urge Duke to divest its endowment from fossil fuels. Duke continues to invest its $13.2 billion endowment in fossil fuel companies, despite over a decade of student activism and a referendum in 2022 in which almost 90% of Duke undergraduates voted in support of divestment. Divestment promotes the transition to a clean energy economy by decreasing the valuations of fossil fuel companies in the stock market and making it more difficult for them to raise money to expand their operations. Furthermore, dozens of Duke’s peer institutions have made the decision to divest, including Cambridge and Brown, contradicting our school’s assertion that it is leading the way on university-level climate action with the Climate Commitment. Duke is choosing to ignore the extensive academic research supporting the efficacy of divestment and instead continues to profit off of the polluting oil industry.

The fact that COP28 is being overrun by fossil fuel interests means that the impetus is on local institutions to lead the charge for climate action. Prominent universities like Duke are well-positioned to take a leadership role in the climate action space, as they have both the financial resources and research expertise needed to design effective environmental policies. However, Duke is currently just as intertwined with the fossil fuel companies as are the politicians at COP28. Our school needs to rise above the low bar set by our world leaders and cut all financial ties with the fossil fuel industry. Only then will Duke fully uphold the ideals set forth in the Climate Commitment and emerge as a trustworthy advocate for global sustainability.

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