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Fossil Free Research Oxbridge students and academics protest unrepentant oil giants’ links in university education



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The world is inexorably hotting up, with temperatures in India reaching 49C – so much heat, dehydrated birds fell from the sky.

Fossil Free Research protesters at the BP Institute in Cambridge, May 17, 2022. Picture: Zakary Coleman
Fossil Free Research protesters at the BP Institute in Cambridge, May 17, 2022. Picture: Zakary Coleman

The Keeling Curve, which records the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, shows that there are now 421.36ppm (particles per million) of CO2 in the air we breathe, with higher temperatures than at any time since humanity first appeared on Earth 300,000 years ago. Climate change currently affects at least 10,967 species on the IUCN Red List of threatened species, increasing the likelihood of their extinction. Our only hope is to fundamentally realign our purpose to work with nature. And yet, the war with Ukraine appears to have provided the fossil fuel industry with yet another excuse not just to delay action to slow the extinction episode we now all face – but to accelerate it.

At least, that is what students and academics at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford were saying at noon today (May 17) when they simultaneously took direct action to demand that these leading UK universities implement an official policy of rejecting fossil fuel industry funding for research. Students and academics at Cambridge occupied the BP Institute, while students at Oxford staged a performance protest at the Saïd Business School.

The actions highlighted the £2million received by the two universities from oil giants in the four years after the 2015 Paris Agreement. The protest was organised by the Fossil Free Research campaign, a new international effort to dismantle the fossil fuel industry’s toxic influence on research.

The Keeling Curve shows the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere has yet to even start levelling out
The Keeling Curve shows the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere has yet to even start levelling out

A Fossil Free Research spokesperson said: “By accepting fossil fuel money for research, universities help greenwash the reputations of the companies driving climate breakdown and devastating communities.

“They also open up climate research to an intractable conflict of interest, which puts the integrity of such research at risk and undermines academic freedom. Such funding also contravenes universities’ stated commitments to climate action and fossil fuel divestment. And in addition to climate science, this funding undermines climate justice, fuelling the continued disproportionate harms of the fossil fuel industry on marginalised communities worldwide.’’

The action in Cambridge took place at the BP Institute, a university research centre funded by the oil giant BP. A group of students and academics occupied the building for 63 minutes, one for each year since oil companies were first alerted to the environmental dangers posed by their business model by scientists. Students staged a theatrical performance where figures representing Shell and BP bought university officials’ silence, before proceeding to silence students who attempted to challenge BP on its environmental record. It comes just days after it was revealed that BP plans to spend nearly £30m a day on new oil and gas projects over the next eight years.

“As two of the most prestigious and well-resourced universities in the world, Oxford and Cambridge have a responsibility to refuse to lend their reputational legitimacy to the industry driving the climate emergency,’’ said Ilana Cohen, a Cambridge student activist. “They must instead protect research independence by leading the way in providing alternative forms of funding from sources without such a corrupting vested interest in delaying climate action.’’

Fossil Free Research campaigners make their point in the BP Institute. Picture: Zakary Coleman
Fossil Free Research campaigners make their point in the BP Institute. Picture: Zakary Coleman

“From the deadly heatwave in India and Pakistan to the growing threat of wildfires across North America, Oxbridge has blood on its hands,” said Oxford student activist Matilda Gettins. “As long as our universities accept fossil fuel research funding, they cannot claim to be partners in the urgent and just renewable energy transition that climate science and justice demand.”

Between 2017 and 2021 alone, Cambridge and Oxford received a combined total of £22m from oil firms, making them top recipients of fossil fuel industry funding among UK universities. Fossil Free Research argues that oil companies set on upholding our current carbon economy cannot be trusted as partners in researching the green transition, especially amid their ongoing efforts to greenwash their record of environmental destruction and lobby against basic climate legislation.

“It’s painful for me as a natural sciences student to know that the vast power and brand of my university, as a leading research institution, supports the greenwashing of oil giants like BP and Shell when these companies have made it abundantly clear that they will not align with climate science,” said Cambridge student and Fossil Free Research activist Sam Gee.

Fossil Free Research adds theatrical theme to protest. Picture: Elisabeth Doherty
Fossil Free Research adds theatrical theme to protest. Picture: Elisabeth Doherty

Today’s actions follow the March publication by Fossil Free Research of an open letter calling on US and UK universities to lead the way in banning fossil fuel industry funding for climate change, environmental, and energy policy research. The letter has been signed by more than 700 leading academics, including multiple IPCC authors, Nobel Prize recipients, and more than 130 Oxbridge affiliates. In calling for university action, the letter draws a parallel with long-established bans on tobacco industry funding for public health research.

One signatory of the letter, Oxford Professor and 2020 Nobel Prize winner for Physics, Sir Roger Penrose, said that addressing climate change “requires scientific and technological developments that will allow fossil fuels to be replaced by appropriate alternatives, and it is essential that objective research on this issue is continued at a high level in a completely objective way. For this, funding needs to be obtained that comes from sources other than those that are themselves dependent upon the very fossil fuels that need to be replaced.”

Oxbridge climate protest organised by Fossil Free Research
Oxbridge climate protest organised by Fossil Free Research

A University spokesperson said: “The University of Cambridge published its relationships with energy companies at the start of the COP26 global climate change talks in Glasgow to show how we are working with partners to accelerate progress to renewable or decarbonised energy. We hope this will spur further action, engagement and debate on the urgently needed steps for a transition to a sustainable future.”

Zak Coleman, undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students’ Union said: “The university expects its students to respect science and treat each other with compassion, yet it’s partnering with companies doing the exact opposite on a planetary scale: ignoring all scientific warnings and devastating communities across the world, especially in the Global South, in the process.”



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