End Fossil-Funded Climate Research @ Columbia University

Columbia University Administration, Board of Trustees, Center for Global Energy Policy, The Climate School, Columbia Finance, Columbia Research, SEAS

We, concerned students, faculty, researchers, alumni, and broader Columbia community members find a conflict of interest with Columbia University accepting funding from oil and gas corporations for climate and energy research. We believe, with evidence from Columbia’s own internal research, that this money compromises the objectivity of our environmental research. In addition, it is clearly documented that these companies have a history of funding and supporting the spread of climate disinformation. Given the magnitude of the climate emergency, it is imperative for the university to elevate its standards and fortify a commitment to integrity; in fact, it is essential if the university wishes to maintain its stature as a reputable and innovative research institution.

Therefore, we demand the following:

1. Set a Firm Timeline for Transitioning to Fossil-Free Environmental Research: Columbia University must release a specific timeline for seeking alternative funding sources that align with ethical research practices and promote unbiased scientific inquiry.

2. Full Transparency: Columbia University must ensure complete and specific transparency regarding money funding CGEP, the Climate School, and additional environmental research beginning on a date negotiated with the administration. This includes releasing the name of the donor, practical use of the money, and any associations with specific studies.

3. Greater Inclusion of Affiliates in Dialogue and Decision Making: As Columbia University works to address this issue, there must be an open dialogue between administrators and researchers, students, and faculty. This ensures that the priorities of administrative officials, many of whom sit on the boards of oil and gas companies, are not the only ones being considered.

The Problem:

From 2012 to 2021, Columbia University has accepted donations of at least $19,582,950, which is likely a severe underestimation, from various fossil fuel companies including Koch, BP, Chevron, Exxon, and Shell and many more. (1) The Center on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) is a direct beneficiary of annually pledged donations from these companies despite their stated commitment to “independent and nonpartisan research that meets the high standards of academic integrity.” (2) Additionally, numerous research projects at Columbia’s Climate School, a graduate school dedicated to “trans-disciplinary climate research,” have been sponsored by fossil fuel companies (including a $616,967 grant from Shell). (3)

The following information raises significant concerns regarding the impartiality of research conducted at the CGEP and the Climate School given the considerable presence of fossil fuel funding:

  • A peer-reviewed study from Columbia SIPA researchers in 2022 categorized CGEP as one of three “fossil-funded academic centers” and also revealed a statistically significant bias favoring natural gas over renewable energy in the center’s research and reports. The study found CGEP publications to be “as positive as that coming from the fossil industry associations, whose explicit mission is to promote the fossil industry.” (4)

  • CGEP’s advisory board includes members with direct ties to the fossil fuel industry. Charif Souki, the executive chairman and co-founder of Tellurian Inc., a natural gas company responsible for producing roughly 79% of U.S. liquified natural gas, (5) sits on the advisory board alongside Cynthia Warner, a board member at Chevron and a lead independent director for Sempra Energy. (6)

  • Columbia’s scientific reports are valued in global environmental policy decisions. A 2014 CGEP report (7) was cited in support of lifting the US crude oil export ban at a 2015 committee hearing. Although the report’s funders remain undisclosed, (8) Congress eventually lifted the 40-year crude oil export ban (9) which led to a 500% increase in exports. (10)

Fossil fuel companies have a long history of restricting cutting-edge climate research from the public eye and spreading disinformation regarding the existence/consequences of climate change (and the role of energy in perpetuating it). There is also evidence pointing to the importance of their connections with elite educational institutions including Columbia as part of their business strategies:

  • In 2015, a series of investigations led by Columbia Journalism affiliates found internal documents from Exxon Mobil acknowledging the dangers of climate change as early as 1970 while outwardly spreading climate disinformation and lobbying against regulations. (11) According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, (12) Exxon spent almost $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to wage a campaign raising questions about climate change. According to Greenpeace, Exxon spent more than $30 million in that effort.

  • A leaked email from Bob Stout, the former Vice President and Head of Regulatory Affairs at BP, named the company’s relationship with Columbia as integral to its influence in the US and globally. (13) Accepting funding from BP protects and enhances this relationship and the problematic messages BP wishes to promote.

Columbia actively risks complicity in and being used for disinformation purposes by producing research tied to fossil fuel money.

Further Information

The numbers presented are estimates of minimums (due to amount disclosure often being presented in ranges, rather than the real amount). Therefore, it is likely that the real numbers are much higher. We also found that while the University has a distinction policy between gifts and sponsored projects (money from the latter is binding for researchers), (14) annual department reports do not distinguish between the two, reinforcing a severe lack of transparency. Lastly, we are concerned that CGEP reports do not always undergo an independent peer review process, (15) again mystifying monetary influence on the research’s legitimacy.

We invite you to explore our research portfolio that is actively updating, which contains much more detail about specific donations and reveals additional concerns with the fossil-funded research occurring at Columbia: https://sunrisecolumbia.org/fossil-free-research/

(1) Donations are compiled here. Data sources: SIPA Annual Reports (2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021); ExxonMobil Worldwide Giving Reports (2017-2021); Columbia Climate School website; Politico (2014 Exxon donation); Columbia Daily Spectator (2016 Exxon donation); Charles Koch Foundation IRS Form 990-PF (2015-2021); Shell USA Community Foundation IRS Form 990-PF (2012-2021); Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Annual Reports (2012-2021); Hess Foundation IRS Form 990-PF (2012-2021); Sempra Energy Foundation IRS Form 990-PF (2012-2021); EQT Foundation IRS Form 990-PF (2012-2021)
(2) https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/our-work/
(3) At least six fossil fuel companies (including Shell, Exxon, and Chevron) have sponsored studies at the Climate School between 2018 and 2022. Data is compiled here.
(4) https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-022-01521-3
(5) https://www.tellurianinc.com/about-us/
(6) https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/cynthia-cj-warner/
(7) https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/publications/american-gas-rescue
(8) https://www.energypolicy.columbia.edu/publications/american-gas-rescue
(9) https://www.banking.senate.gov/newsroom/majority/shelby-statement-at-hearing-on-lifting-the-crude-oil-export-ban
(10) https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-21-118
(11) https://journalism.columbia.edu/two-year-long-investigation-what-exxon-knew-about-climate-change and https://www.theguardian.com/business/2023/jan/12/exxon-climate-change-global-warming-researc
(12) https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/smoke-mirrors-hot-air
(13) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/23526634-bp_princeton
(14) https://www.finance.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/Finance%20Documents/Endowments/Appendices.Distinguishing%20gifts%20from%20sponsored%20projects.pdf
(15) See the quote from SIPA Professor Douglas Almond in the Columbia Daily Spectator: “Unlike some other prominent energy centers (cf. the University of Chicago’s EPIC), Columbia energy center reports do not typically face peer review by independent, scholarly journals”

To: Columbia University Administration, Board of Trustees, Center for Global Energy Policy, The Climate School, Columbia Finance, Columbia Research, SEAS
From: [Your Name]

We understand that the question of accepting fossil fuel funding is currently being discussed at the University. We believe the opinion of Columbia’s affiliates, along with the presented information, should be taken into account in these conversations due to the severity of the premise of research disintegrity.

By signing this petition, we express our strong desire for Columbia University to uphold academic integrity, unbiased research, and environmental stewardship and its commitment to needed fourth purpose action. By taking these steps, we believe Columbia University will distinguish itself as a pioneer and leader in addressing one of the greatest challenges in human history.