Duke Climate Coalition holds protest, publishes report on University research funded by fossil fuel companies

Over 50 students gathered on the Bryan Center Plaza Friday afternoon for a Fossil Free Research Day of Action, coinciding with the release of a report by the Duke Climate Coalition alleging that the University received over $24 million in research funding from the fossil fuel industry between 2010 and 2021.

The report argues that by “enforcing pro-fossil fuel sentiments into research,” fossil fuel companies “promot[e] a fossil fuel-based present rather than a liveable, equitable, and renewable-based future.”

“Duke collaborating with fossil fuel companies, even when not on explicitly climate or environmental topics, can thus nonetheless have negative effects on climate policy,” the report reads. 

Protesters and authors of the report both called on Duke to make three major policy changes: to refuse further funding and reinvest in supporting environmental justice initiatives, to end the Duke Career Center’s role in helping students enter the fossil fuel industry and to divest its full endowment from fossil fuel companies listed in the Carbon Underground 200.

Fossil free research protest

Led by the Duke Climate Coalition, the protest’s attendees held up signs with calls to action including “commit to the climate” and “people over profit.”

Participants also spread a large banner across the Brodhead Center walkway and at the Commons that read “Stop the lies, cut all ties, the future is fossil free.” The banner was left pinned to the glass railing of the Brodhead Center walkway after the protest concluded. 

Junior Yujin Kim led students in several call-and-response chants throughout the protest, including phrases like “stand up fight back” and “big oil back off.”

DCC co-president Abby Saks, a senior, spoke about the student group’s long-running divestment campaign, which has now been underway for 11 years. According to the DCC website, 1 to 2% of Duke’s $12.7 billion endowment consists of fossil fuel stocks, which the DCC argues is incompatible with the University’s values under the Climate Commitment announced last November. 

Junior Felicia Wang, DCC’s Durham community partnerships coordinator, spoke about the ways fossil fuel company actions are exacerbating the climate crisis. 

Wang pointed to Cancer Alley in Louisiana, where a quarter of America’s total petrochemical production is concentrated, as one example of a community in which pollution from fossil fuel companies has led to negative health impacts. Cancer Alley has the highest rate of cancer risk in the nation, with disproportionate effects on the region’s majority Black communities. 

Wang also noted that the timing of the protest was especially important as it took place on the second day of the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The conference has come under fire for being hosted by the United Arab Emirates, a major oil-producing company, and for featuring participants with ties to the fossil fuel industry.

First-year Artivista Karlin then took the megaphone to recite a poem criticizing Duke’s administration for failing to prioritize the well-being of its students’ futures and connecting the fight for climate justice to other social justice movements.

“You devil of a university, divest and reinvest or we die and rest, not in peace but in agony, in unfathomable pain and suffering for the millions, for the billions who will suffer tremendously from the ongoing climate crisis. We demand climate justice,” Karlin read.

‘Duke’s Commitment to Fossil Fuels Over Climate’ report

The DCC authored the report, assisted by Fossil Free Research, an organization that has helped a number of student groups at other universities to create similar reports, including at Harvard University, Brown University and George Washington University.

Figures provided in the report are underestimates of the total fossil fuel funding provided to Duke, since data on funding levels are confidential or “buried in obscure corners of the internet.” The data included in the report excludes donations or sponsorships from fossil fuel corporations and only considers donations from tax-exempt foundations.

Using data from 990 tax forms, the DCC reports that Duke has received over $24 million from fossil fuel companies and climate denial foundations since 2010, with a sharp increase in donations from both entities peaking in 2018. Since then, these organizations have donated over $1 million annually to the University. 

The report also finds that the number of research papers by Duke authors sponsored by fossil fuel companies or climate denial foundations has been increasing since 2010.

The report alleges that, of the $5,228,593 the Charles Koch Foundation donated to Duke between 2010 and 2021, a significant amount of it was used to support the Center for the History of Political Economy's Hayek Lecture Series, which featured a lecture by “prominent climate-denying author” Bjorn Lomborg in 2021. 

Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist,” believes human-caused climate change is happening but thinks that policies tackling the issue are too costly and achieve little. Critics, including Climate Feedback, a global network of scientists who assess the credibility of climate change commentary, have previously accused Lomborg for cherry-picking evidence.

“While we are not opposed to bringing people with diverse ideological perspectives to speak on campus, people like Lomborg who argue against climate change should have no place at Duke,” the report read.

However, the donation was mainly used to expand the Center's faculty and programs, including adding faculty and hiring a digital librarian. 

"Exactly zero of the funds that support the Hayek Lecture Series, whose budget is around $10,000 a year, comes from the Koch Foundation. The Lecture Series has been in existence since 2010 and videos of the approximately fifty lectures we hosted are available on our website. Only one has been on climate change, that by Bjorn Lomborg in 2021," wrote Bruce Caldwell, director of the Center for the History of Political Economy and research professor of economics, in a message to The Chronicle. 

After the speakers concluded, the DCC’s leadership team led participants in a march to the Allen Building to deliver a copy of the report to Duke administrators. Debbie Heida, interim associate vice president and dean of students, received the report.

“I appreciate the fact that you’ve put a lot of work into research, which is what Duke students do really well — to bring issues to the forefront,” Heida said. “... I’ll make sure that Dr. Price gets this copy and [I] appreciate the chance to meet with you today.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated Tuesday morning to include a message from Caldwell and reflect that the Koch Foundation's donation to the Center for the History of Political Economy was used to add new faculty and programs, instead of contributing to the Hayek Lecture series as alleged by the report. 

Zoe Kolenovsky profile
Zoe Kolenovsky | Associate News Editor

Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department. 

Abby Spiller | Editor-at-Large

Abby Spiller is a Trinity sophomore and an editor-at-large of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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