Last month, a representative from ExxonMobil arrived on campus to recruit Brown geology students. One of us, Galen Winsor, went to listen and ask questions. As Brown students, we have deep concerns about the extent to which Brown supports and receives support from companies like ExxonMobil, which is one of the main perpetrators behind the climate crisis. We wanted to see how ExxonMobil could justify asking young scientists — part of the generation bearing the brunt of the climate crisis — to join their company.
The representative from ExxonMobil was welcomed by a University geology professor. After the professor left the room, the representative began his presentation with a slide that supposedly predicted energy consumption trends for the next 20 years: it showed a small decrease in coal use, an increase in natural gas and the tiniest of increases in renewable energy. Continued reliance on traditional fossil fuels is the “reality,” the rep claimed, adding that such reliance is necessary for increased global standards of living. The rest of his presentation continued in this vein: grossly misleading graphics and project overviews meant to demonstrate ExxonMobil’s commitment to responsible energy production and establish its position as a legitimate social actor. In ExxonMobil world, climate science in the 1970s wasn’t relevant and natural gas provides a sufficiently clean alternative to coal. And while the company touts that it has sequestered a large amount of their total emissions through carbon capture and storage, the vast majority remains in our atmosphere.
By allowing companies like ExxonMobil to recruit on campus and uncritically accepting their donations, Brown becomes complicit in a humanitarian atrocity. Departments should reject recruitment offers from major fossil fuel corporations like ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron, and neither the University nor individual departments should accept any donations from these companies.
As things stand, the world is nowhere near adequately responding to the climate crisis. Global emissions of greenhouse gases are rising at an increasing rate every year, while major carbon sinks such as the Indonesian rainforest are being destroyed. International commitments under the 2015 Paris agreement — which most nations are ignoring anyway — would still lead to warming of over 2.7°C above pre-industrial levels, far above the potentially catastrophic 2°C goal. Meanwhile, by lobbying and funding climate science denial from politicians and discredited researchers, companies like ExxonMobil have crippled the United States’ ability to lead an international effort to avert the climate crisis — consigning our generation and those after us to an increasingly unlivable planet.
To stop climate change, we must stop using fossil fuels, which would end the most powerful industry in the world and negate the value of billions of tons of oil and gas still held in reserves. If we take action, it will amount to the largest expropriation of private wealth in history. So fossil fuel producers have undertaken a concerted effort to stop that from ever happening. Their more obvious efforts have included lobbying — the industry spends an average of $125 million per year lobbying on Capitol Hill alone — campaign donations and a revolving door between federal and state governments and fossil fuel companies. Added up, this makes the industry one of the biggest forces in Washington.
But the truly insidious strategies from corporations such as ExxonMobil have come in the form of mass-media public relations campaigns, educational material for students from first-grade to the graduate level and targeted donations to hundreds of elite universities. All of these efforts seek to undermine the scientific consensus that emissions from burning fossil fuels cause climate change, and that climate change will ultimately harm, displace or kill hundreds of millions of people — even as Exxon’s own scientists privately confirmed the potential for catestrophic effects of climate change.
Beyond subverting climate science, ExxonMobil’s communications-oriented strategies seek to convince most people in America, including the educated elite, to refrain from questioning the “need” for continued reliance on fossil fuels. This long-term corporate strategy is designed to ensure that there are no real challenges to ExxonMobil’s right to extract, produce and sell oil in the U.S. for decades to come. Meanwhile, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urgently recommends that we completely remove fossil fuels from our energy system in the next two to three decades, starting now.
The kind of rapid, radical change the IPCC calls for is impossible so long as institutions like Brown continue to support the fossil fuel industry. Brown’s decision to continue accepting donations from fossil fuel companies — it did in 2017, according to information published by ExxonMobil — and allowing them to recruit on campus reinforces their hold on society and politics. Make no mistake: ExxonMobil relies on direct access to students like us to ensure its future success.
Even more importantly, Brown legitimizes the false science promoted by oil companies like ExxonMobil by allowing them to recruit and donate. There is a serious disconnect between the way prestigious institutions like ours treat ExxonMobil — granting them audiences on campus, accepting their money and even allowing them to advertise in our yearbooks — and the way they ought to be treated given the grievous harms they have caused. This is a hard pattern to break loose from. Major oil companies can leverage significant funds and lucrative careers for students graduating into an uncertain job market, which makes them hard to refuse. Nonetheless, when the departments accept ExxonMobil’s grants without question, they legitimize a false, unethical position on climate science that is destroying our planet and future. Furthermore, accepting even small donations from corporations like ExxonMobil means that our scientists receive money from the very companies that falsely dispute their findings.
That said, fossil fuel products power our economy, and immediately shutting down all fossil fuel infrastructure would have catastrophic effects. It can be tempting to conclude that we should cooperate with major petroleum producers like ExxonMobil — especially as an ostensibly apolitical institution dedicated to research and education. Yet these companies’ history of obstruction, misdirection and science denial make it clear that the opposite is true: Brown’s choice to uncritically allow ExxonMobil access to its students, accept its donations and give it space in our yearbook is not a neutral one. It is deeply political: it is a choice to support a false, unethical worldview and a project of ecological destruction. We do not mean to call out any one department because the problem is systemic, but the fact remains that companies like ExxonMobil deserve to be ostracized.
We are running out of time. Increasingly powerful storms, fires, droughts and heatwaves devastate vulnerable communities around the world while powerful, wealthy institutions like Brown continue on the path of least-resistance. In a world on fire, Brown should be a vanguard of justice, science and progress. Instead, it is all too often a hub for corporate recruitment — a pipeline to high-paying, exploitative jobs that perpetuate harmful practices and systems. We, members of the generation defined by the climate crisis, are calling out the complacency of Brown’s administration and departments. Cease Brown’s role in the climate crisis and reject the false science and harmful practices of companies like ExxonMobil.
Galen Hall ’20 and Galen Winsor ’22 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly referred to authors Galen Hall '20 and Galen Winsor '22 as geology students. The op-ed has been updated to refer to them as "Brown students." The Herald regrets the error.