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Big Oil’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Influence Exposed as Cambridge University Cuts Funding Ties

There is mounting evidence that the fossil fuel industry is involved in an extensive disinformation campaign

Cambridge University students protest over the institute taking money from oil companies
Cambridge University students protest about it taking funding from the fossil fuel industry. Photo: Terry Macalister

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As Cambridge University this week announced it has temporarily stopped taking donations from fossil fuel companies following years of pressure, Byline Times can reveal the multi-billion-dollar influence big oil has on politics.

Academics from the university, together with others from around the world, met at Jesus College earlier this month and proposed forming an international unit to “monitor the political activities of firms and trade associations in the fossil fuel sector” amid mounting evidence of a disinformation campaign. At the workshop, it was revealed big oil had spent at least $3.3 billion trying to influence the narrative around climate change and fossil fuels over a 10-year period.

The Intellectual Forum meeting came as the university, on 18 March, halted donations from big oil due to concerns about how it may impact the institution’s high research reputation and as part of its “commitment to address climate change through a transition to a zero carbon world.” It also follows a report last year by former UN climate change envoy Nigel Topping that recommended it and warned of the “high reputational risk” the university’s relationship with big oil presented. The report stated that the funding amounted to £3.3 million per annum over the last six years.

While welcoming the university’s funding and monitoring unit decisions, Kevin Anderson, Professor of energy and climate change at Manchester University, said he hoped it would herald a complete rethink.

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“Perhaps after two decades of mitigation denial the academic and wider expert community will find the courage to call out the Emperor is naked,” he told Byline Times.

Benjamin Franta, a senior research fellow on sustainability at Oxford University, added: “It’s long past time for the fossil fuel industry’s influence over academic research to be scrutinised. We need integrity in academic research to develop climate solutions we are all depending on.”

The workshop heard that researchers from Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and a host of other blue-chip international universities, had found that the fossil fuel sector is engaged in major attempts to muddy the waters around climate science and undermine a transition to clean technology. It is doing this, academics argued, in a variety of different ways including funding research at respected educational establishments, through think tanks and direct political lobbying.

Christian Downie, Associate Professor at Australian National University, said that many of the “firms and industry groups that provide funding to universities do so to shape policy and public opinion in ways that are consistent with their commercial interests and not the science on climate change”. He added: “We also know that some of these organisations spend tens of millions of dollars (USD) each year funding lobbying and other activities designed to delay and block action on climate policy.”

The professor told the workshop that trade associations in the US had spent $3.4b between 2008 and 2018 on political activities centred on the climate crisis. This included $2.16b on advertising and promotion, $729 million on lobbying and more on grants and direct political contributions, he said, before noting, “This is just the tip of the iceberg”.

“We don’t really know how much they spend…(but we do know) that funding can produce biased research, strategy and findings,” he said.

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Jeremy Baumberg, a professor at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge and a fellow of Jesus College, argued that the issue of fossil fuel funding was “really complicated” and raised “ethical, moral and personal challenges”.

Cambridge, like other universities, has been under continued pressure from students, staff members, and climate activists, to sever ties with the fossil fuel industry but administrators have been reluctant.

Student newspaper Varsity revealed in February 2023 that chemistry undergraduates were still being handed BP-branded lab coats even though the annual BP Sustainability Lecture had been dropped. A few months earlier, the university announced that the BP Institute on the outskirts of the city would be renamed the Institute for Energy and Environmental Flows. Students occupied the buildings in May 2022.

At the time, Professor Andy Neely, then a senior administrator, or Pro Vice Chancellor, at Cambridge, insisted that while energy transition was urgent “it is not possible at the pace and scale required without the current (oil) industry’s involvement and willingness to transition”.

The row over misinformation by oil companies has been rumbling on for decades with a report in 2015, The Climate Deception Dossiers from the US-based Union of Concerned Scientists, arguing that there was abundant evidence that corporate leaders knew their products were harmful as far back as 1981, but were still actively deceiving the public and denying this harm.

Jason Scott-Warren, a Cambridge professor of early modern literature and a leading voice in the university’s climate debate, said Cambridge’s decision to stop taking funding should just be the starting point: “A growing understanding of the threat to academic integrity was a key factor in Cambridge’s decision to impose a temporary moratorium on new funded collaborations. We now need this to be followed up with a permanent ban on funds from obstructive forces.”


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