Op-ed: End GW’s complicity in the climate crisis

Sunrise GW is a student organization dedicated to fighting the climate crisis. The following op-ed is an abridged version of a letter delivered to officials and the Board of Trustees last week.

One year ago, we wrote to you outlining the two primary ways GW was complicit in the climate crisis – its fossil fuel investments and its continued affiliation with the Regulatory Studies Center. At the end of June, thanks to the hard work of relentless student advocates, you committed GW to the most aggressive steps in the University’s history to combat the greatest crisis of our time. In committing to full divestment from fossil fuels, carbon neutrality by 2030 and reversing GW’s entire 200-year carbon footprint, you aligned with science and acknowledged the need for our society to transition off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Why, then, has the University continued to lend its name and credibility to climate deniers and efforts to deregulate the fossil fuel industry by harboring the RSC?

The problem starts at the top. During her time in then-President George W. Bush’s administration, RSC Founder and Director Susan Dudley was the official responsible for the suppression of a finding from her own administration’s Environmental Protection Agency scientists that greenhouse gas emissions pose a danger to human welfare. Dudley has a long history of advocating for increased emissions and downplaying the existential threat of climate change. She has argued that there are benefits to climate change, such as preventing the next ice age. She also once argued that smog is beneficial because its blocking of the sun can reduce skin cancer and cataracts. This type of advocacy work from Dudley and others at the RSC was described in a recent article as continuing “to harm the most vulnerable communities impacted by environmental racism.”

An issue that should be of utmost concern to the University is that Dudley has repeatedly used her position to elevate and lend credibility to climate deniers, fossil fuel cronies and other discredited backers of pseudoscience by allowing them to use GW’s name, despite a lack of affiliation with the institution. Among these individuals is Julian Morris, who wrote a public comment for the RSC on GW letterhead advocating for the rollback of the Obama-era fuel efficiency standards. Morris is a well-documented climate denier who “has called global warming a myth created by a coalition of self-interested scientists, governments and environmental groups.” This group also includes Richard Belzer, a former Exxon consultant, who has advocated that the EPA strike the finding that greenhouse gases pose a threat to human welfare. He made his intent to undermine climate science very clear: “The goal here is not to change the policy but to correct the science.” Dudley has also lent GW’s name and credibility to Tony Cox, yet another industry consultant and “fringe” scientist who has been paid to undermine science that could hurt his clients’ products. Cox is so discredited that even Bush’s Food and Drug Administration commissioner struck his testimony from proceedings. “The agency found that he ‘intentionally misquoted published articles,’ and ‘Dr. Cox’s credibility was such that his testimony was so unreliable that it was inadmissible,’” according to GW professor and former OSHA head David Michaels. These three examples are part of a long list of anti-science individuals that Dudley has allowed to trade on GW’s name and credibility through the vehicle of the RSC.

Even if you decide it is acceptable to house a center that uses GW’s name and credibility to elevate climate deniers and promote fossil fuel interests at the expense of your students’ futures, there are serious ethical concerns that the RSC must answer for. In 2018, 10 funding agreements for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University were released and showed clear violation of the norms of academic freedom by giving donors influence over hiring. Dudley was the director of the Regulatory Studies Program at the Mercatus Center while some of these practices were ongoing. In addition, three of these 10 norm-violating agreements were with the Koch Foundation, including one from 2009, the same year the RSC was founded. Other RSC donors have been found in violation of the principles of academic freedom in the past as well. It is reasonable to ask if RSC funding agreements with the Koch Foundation (or any donor) from the same era similarly violated the norms of academic freedom. Part of the reason these practices have potentially been allowed to permeate the University is because GW lacks an institutional conflict of interest policy and does not mandate its centers and departments to disclose funding or terms of funding agreements.

With its historic commitments in June, GW has the opportunity to be one of the nation’s leaders in combating climate change. Unfortunately, when you look the other way as climate deniers, fossil fuel cronies and discredited backers of pseudoscience trade on GW’s name and credibility, you undermine your positive actions at every turn. Time is running out before the planet blows past the warming targets set in the Paris Agreement, to which GW claims to be committed. The fossil fuel industry is fighting tooth and nail to delay any action that hurts their bottom line, even right here at GW. Which side are you on?

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