New York State’s announcement that it will divest its $226 billion pension fund of fossil fuels — the first state in the country to do so — signals that the tides are turning in the climate movement. This groundbreaking step in the climate finance movement demonstrates the imperative for leadership on climate. Somehow though, universities like ours that tout their leadership have been left as laggards on climate. As New York State shows leadership, Princeton University provides cover for fossil fuel companies through engagement and continuing to invest.
We expect our universities to be at the forefront of research on climate change. What we don’t expect is that the bulk of climate research at universities like Princeton is funded by notorious polluters like ExxonMobil and BP. ExxonMobil was quick to announce the recent renewal of a multimillion-dollar partnership with Princeton on Twitter, posting a video on the research relationship as evidence of Exxon’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis.
The prevailing view at Princeton has been that engagement with companies like Exxon is a necessary part of climate action and that we need “all hands on deck” to respond to climate change. Princeton leadership said of their 2015 Exxon partnership, “We’re not just taking their (Exxon’s) money and are happy with what they’re telling us…. We’re good partners because we challenge each other.”
So where was Princeton when Exxon spent just 0.22 percent of its budget on clean energy between 2010 and 2018? Where was Princeton as Exxon continued to pour tens of millions into lobbying efforts against climate action? Where was Princeton as Exxon planned to expand annual emissions by an amount equal to that of the entire country of Greece? For four decades, Exxon has known about the serious threat from climate change, while continuing to pour tens of millions into climate denial and disinformation think tanks.
As Princeton welcomes the company on board, Exxon is actively trying to sink the ship. So how does Exxon get away with it? Companies like Exxon trade on their social legitimacy. When the “best” university in the United States engages Exxon as a research partner, Exxon goes from pariah to partner on climate and uses its proximity to well-regarded academic institutions as a way to maintain legitimacy. Further, Princeton continues to resist divesting its $26 billion endowment from Exxon and fossil fuel companies — shying away from moral clarity for fear of being “politically partial.” Princeton borrows the framing of fossil fuel companies by blaming consumers rather than those companies that have steered us toward climate collapse and actively blocked at each step any effort to act collectively to mitigate the crisis.
Princeton has no revenue problems. The university’s research could easily be funded by another, more ethical source. Last year alone, Princeton received over $66 million from its alumni and so, over the past year, we have worked to show that this matters to the Princeton community. More than 1,860 current and future Princeton alumni have pledged not to donate to the university until it divests from fossil fuels — the largest pledge of its kind in Princeton’s history. This is particularly remarkable given that Princeton has the highest rate of alumni giving of any university in the United States. Princeton needs to make a decision about who it wants to partner with: its loyal and committed alumni, or the worst of big oil?
Princeton was recently named the top school in the country, but as it continues to profit from the climate crisis, the university loses more clout as a leader and undermines its own scholarship and credibility. Case in point: Vijay Swarup, vice president of research and development at ExxonMobil, was recently identified by Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran as pushing “incorrect and misleading” claims on climate change. Swarup also sits on the External Advisory Board of Princeton’s Andlinger Center.
The misguided belief in “business as usual” adopted by Princeton’s leadership on the question of engagement with companies like Exxon and continued investment in fossil fuel companies is damning its own reputation, but much more importantly, it is damning our futures. As young people, we will have to live with the effects of inaction from institutions like Princeton for the rest of our lives. And so, we organize.