Op-ed: Faculty should stand with students against climate change misinformation

The leaders of the fossil fuel industry and their funders have repeatedly and deliberately misled the public about the science and solutions to climate change in an effort to block climate policy. But they don’t stop there – they have long tried to influence research related to climate policy and undermine academic freedom to their own advantage through funding for research centers, including at GW. That’s one reason I stand with the members of Sunrise GW and encourage every faculty member to take the organization’s No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. Taking this pledge lets students know we are taking our responsibility to protect the University and its students from disingenuous and dangerous efforts to undermine a healthy exchange of ideas seriously.

As a member of the faculty of the School of Media and Public Affairs and one of this year’s Terker Distinguished Fellows – a program that brings professionals from the fields of media, political communication and public affairs to SMPA each academic year – I believe it’s absolutely essential to protect the integrity of information. As leaders in the field of public information, we must safeguard against the misinformation running rampant in today’s world, especially when it seeps into the work done by those of us at GW.

The Sunrise Movement is a youth campaign whose mission is to make climate change an urgent priority in the United States, end the corrupting influence of fossil fuel executives on our politics and elect leaders who stand up for people’s health and well-being. In 2020, Sunrise GW and other student groups successfully pressured GW to divest its endowment from the fossil fuel industry after a week of student protests in February that year and after Georgetown and American Universities announced their own plans to divest from the industry.

To end the industry’s influence at GW once and for all, Sunrise GW is now urging faculty and the University to take their No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge to refuse speaking engagements or fees from fossil fuel companies. Sunrise GW is calling on GW’s administration and the Board of Trustees to enact a ban on funding from the Slippery Six – the six companies and organizations that Congress subpoenaed for their role in the “Disinformation Campaign to Prevent Climate Action” – and from the top 10 funders of the related U.S. climate change counter-movement.

I fully support Sunrise GW’s goals and am signing this pledge because these young people are taking decisive, coordinated action to end an era of lies and ruinous climate denialism. We must respect their leadership and make sure the University aligns with the values of its students and on the side of truth. With its focus on intellectual honesty and responsibility, the School of Media and Public Affairs must take a particularly strong stance on disinformation. Making sure every faculty member and the University itself signs this pledge is critical to protecting information integrity, especially when there’s a connection to GW.

The hard truth is that the fossil fuel industry exerts significant influence at GW, clashing with the principles of independent research. A 2019 report by Public Citizen found that the Regulatory Studies Center has received more than a million dollars in funding from both ExxonMobil and the Charles Koch Foundation since its inception in 2007. Public Citizen’s report concluded that the RSC’s research heavily favors outcomes beneficial to the fossil fuel industry and provides “scholarly rationales against government regulation” that would reduce pollution or combat climate change. A 2021 report by Jake Lowe, a researcher with the Milken Institute School of Public Health’s Redstone Center for Global Wellness, found that “the RSC is an ally of chemical manufacturers, the fossil fuel industry and a vast network of wealthy ultra-conservative donors.”

Sunrise GW has great potential to achieve its objective with a precedent for bans on funding from industry groups at GW. In 2018, Milken placed an embargo on academic funding from the tobacco industry to protect its work from the influence of a professional field known for unethical interference in academic research. Many other academic institutions have enacted similar bans, including the Harvard School of Public Health, which adopted a tobacco funding ban in 2002. “The fossil fuel industry’s denial and delay tactics come straight out of Big Tobacco’s playbook,” the George Mason University Center for Climate Change has stated.

GW cannot afford to allow its affiliation with fossil fuel companies to diminish its stellar reputation. Even the appearance of funding from the fossil fuel industry impacting research and operations at GW creates a damaging conflict of interest, and there’s already proof that the impact is very real. Allowing fossil fuel companies to associate with an institution of GW’s standing thwarts climate action – it lends them credibility, gives them a social license to operate and contributes to greenwashing campaigns in which they deceptively market themselves as environmentally friendly.

Faculty must stand with the students of Sunrise GW who are determined to disengage GW from an industry that not only denies climate change but puts millions of dollars into efforts to manipulate research and mislead the public. We have a responsibility to protect and amplify the truth. Dozens of faculty have already taken the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, and I urge every faculty member to do so. By acting together and supporting the efforts of the students of Sunrise GW, we can take a stand against the architects of the climate crisis.

Kristen Grimm is the president of Spitfire Strategies, a woman-owned strategic communication firm, a part-time faculty member and a Terker Fellow at the School of Media and Public Affairs.

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