OP-ED: American University: Be a leader in climate action, say no to fossil fuel dollars
While American University paints itself as a climate leader, it must take further action to demonstrate true climate leadership
American University took an important step forward when it divested its endowment from fossil fuels in 2020. By removing all fossil fuel stocks from its endowment portfolio, the University responded not only to demands from its students, but also participated in a moment of reckoning for the fossil fuel industry that came after decades of deceit, disinformation and destruction. Now, the University needs to go a step further; it must cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry.
The declared goal of the college divestment movement, when it began in 2012, was to revoke the fossil fuel industry’s social license to operate. As the movement worked toward this goal, it fundamentally changed the conversation around climate change in the United States and made progress in stigmatizing the fossil fuel industry. Through its own divestment, American University played a role in this progress.
Today, however, the University continues to accept donations from the fossil fuel industry. This is a step backwards.
In the last decade, as the impacts of climate change have become more visible –– with rapidly increasing extreme weather events and record-breaking heat this summer ––it is clear that a movement to eradicate the fossil fuel industry is more important than ever. Our institutions must not only divest from the fossil fuel industry, they must cut all ties and fully dissociate from an industry that, over decades, has spent millions of dollars spreading disinformation and delaying climate action.
The industry has used its ties to academia, both financial and not, to bolster its power, influence and public image. Internal documents from BP obtained by the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Accountability show the oil giant saw its relationships with high-profile universities as key to its long-term goals of influencing policy and public opinion. Universities, as authorities on knowledge and education, must not provide legitimacy and power to the fossil fuel industry by maintaining relationships with these corporations. They must cut all ties with the fossil fuel industry.
American University, a self-identified sustainability leader and the first university in the United States to reach carbon neutrality, should now take that step, cutting its own ties with the fossil fuel industry. The University should dissociate not only to live up to the image of environmental leadership it has painted for itself, but also to act as a model for other higher education institutions.
AU can be an example of what it looks like to reject complicity in the industry’s rampant PR campaign. It can be a leader in a new movement for Fossil Free Research. This movement’s goal is to dismantle the fossil fuel industry’s influence on higher education, and it is already beginning to have some success.
Last September, Princeton University announced it would refuse gifts and grants from 90 companies with business in coal and tar sands. In May, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam stated it would not enter research collaborations with companies whose business models were not in alignment with the Paris Agreement. Even with these qualified wins, universities still have a long way to go in removing the fossil fuel industry’s outsized influence on academia.
American University should be at the forefront of the fossil free movement. Yet, in the last ten years, AU has accepted over a million dollars in donations from the fossil fuel industry. The vast majority of these donations have come from the Charles Koch Foundation, the ‘charitable’ organization of a billionaire corporate executive who has spent decades funding climate denial and raking in fossil fuel profits.
Accepting big oil money is in direct competition with the image of climate action American University paints for itself. As a university that is “deeply committed to and engaged with climate action,” AU has the opportunity to fulfill the image of climate and environmental leadership it has constructed for itself. By making a public commitment to reject all future donations and research funding from the fossil fuel industry, the University can show that it is truly committed to the transformative action required to combat climate change. It can demonstrate true climate leadership.
American University could be the very first university in the United States to make a commitment to reject all research funding and charitable donations from the fossil fuel industry. The only question is if AU will choose to be the climate leader it claims to be.
Maddie Young is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences.
This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Charlie Mennuti.