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I walked to class in the Earth Sciences Building on a cold fall afternoon, a warm coffee cup pressed against my hands. As I entered the auditorium, my eyes glossed over a plaque next to the door before they found their mark. Inscribed on the wall of the building were the words Imperial Oil.

It is not a secret that Big Oil gives money to the University of Toronto. Little plaques engraved with the names of oil companies line lecture halls throughout the campus, small enough to overlook, but once you start seeing them, you can’t stop. Reminders — fossils — of those who built U of T.

On Nov. 24, 2022, university president Meric Gertler gave the opening remarks at the first U of T Climate Economy Summit and thanked its sponsors, including Imperial Oil and Enbridge. There was no shortage of polluters on the guest list, starting with a morning panel on funding the climate transition with representatives from Canada’s biggest funder of fossil fuels: RBC.

The conference came shortly after the first Fossil Free Research week of action in Canada — a campus movement to end the fossil fuel financing of climate research. U of T students hung banners calling for fossil-free research.

University of British Columbia students published a lengthy report outlining their university's complex financial relationship to the biggest polluters.

University of Toronto students joining a Fridays for Future Toronto strike as a contingent in September 2022, demanding fossil-free research and full and transparent divestment. Photo courtesy of Angelina Zahajko

On March 3, 2023, U of T students will cut their classes again to protest the university’s environmental record, including the acceptance of fossil fuel funding for climate research.

Faculty and student activists at other major universities like Harvard, Columbia, and Cambridge have also conducted research into their universities’ ties to the fossil fuel industry. Their findings have been stark, showing huge financial ties between institutions and the biggest polluters.

Recently, the Doer School of Sustainability at Stanford has been under scrutiny for announcing it is open to receiving fossil fuel funding. This is hardly surprising — Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy project, for instance, is funded by ExxonMobil and oilfield services company Schlumberger.

Big Oil — and its funders — have no place in universities, writes Amy Mann @mann_amy_ #cndpoli #OurVoicesOurFuture #ClimateAction #PeopleNotProfit

Funding university research is an old and effective strategy for shifting the narrative and elevating voices — often the minority — to create a sense of scientific legitimacy. It was employed by Purdue Pharma to convince doctors to prescribe opioids more liberally and by the tobacco industry to obfuscate the effects of smoking on people’s health.

A recent Nature paper showed that fossil fuel-funded research centres’ messaging systemically favours gas over renewable energy, and shockingly, “the positive sentiment towards gas is indistinguishable from the American Gas Foundation.”

Fossil fuel research funding is a systemic issue elevating the voices of scientists with beneficial views about adaptation and mitigation of climate change while diminishing others. The competition for funding in academia is intense. Who gets funding to pursue their research and who does not makes a huge difference in the messages we see.

The problem is not individual researchers with nefarious intentions. Instead, the problem lies in allowing the fossil fuel industry to choose which research topics it funds, thereby, amplifying certain ideas about climate mitigation — for instance, net-zero technological solutions rather than no-emissions solutions.

An MIT report funded by ExxonMobil suggesting the effects of climate change can be mitigated through a transition to natural gas went on to be touted by Barack Obama during his State of the Union Address. The principal investigator was appointed his energy secretary. Fossil fuel funding leaves behind more than just plaques.

In particular, we see the effect of fossil fuel financing in public conversations about carbon capture, an area of research heavily funded by fossil fuel companies. Despite disappointing results so far, strong evidence that carbon capture is insufficient as a primary solution to climate change, and concern it is being used as a mechanism to delay transitioning away from fossil fuels, it has received a mountain of attention in recent years for its potential as a climate change “solution” and was even included in HSBC’s definition of “transition financing” even though its purpose is not to help transition away from fossil fuels.

This narrative shift elevating technological solutions to climate change is not just happening through research funding. An RBC-sponsored contest at U of T is offering $100,000 in venture capital funding to student business pitches that use data and technology to address the climate crisis.

Framing the climate crisis as a technological problem for the private sector — the very system that has caused and exacerbates climate change — is dangerous. It has long been employed by Big Oil to avoid climate regulations (at the same time as it blames consumers). Big Oil — and its funders — have no place in schools.

On my way to class a few weeks ago, I saw an unfamiliar bright blue bus ad on College Street. As I approached the bus shelter, the words became clear: “Using CO2 to shrink our carbon footprint.”

I stopped in my tracks, taking a moment to register what I was seeing. Eventually, I walked away with a pit in my stomach and a thought that wouldn’t go away — my school talks like an oil company.

Amy Mann is a second-year math and physics specialist at the University of Toronto. She is the sustainability commissioner on Victoria University Students' Administrative Council (VUSAC) and is also involved in fossil-free research with Climate Justice U of T.

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Fantastic, deeply troubling article - thanks for this and your activism Amy.

This kind of article, that exposes the roots of the problem and shows the ways that the very wealthy (oil in this case) rig the playing field, is very important.

Think of the big oil companies as cigarette companies on steroids. Their misinformation playbook is the same: deny, create confusion & doubt, pretend to be doing something to reduce CO2 emissions by capturing carbon (akin to marketing low nicotine cigarettes & vaping devices). They won't even clean up their own mess of abandoned oil wells while making record profits. Don't believe anything they say.