Brandon Thibodeaux/The New York Times

June 17, 2024

GUEST ROOM | Cornell reproduces Big Oil’s disinformation: It’s time to ask why 

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The alarming gap between climate rhetoric and action is sending our planet over the brink of habitability. A landmark Congressional Report brought that into stark relief by revealing how fossil fuel industry giants have deployed a suite of tactics to deny climate accountability by “spreading disinformation and perpetuating doublespeak about the safety of natural gas and its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.” The report is a reminder that communication is a vital playing field in the battle between short-term profit and longer-term sustainability. The fossil fuel industry has come under fire because of its outsized contribution to carbon emissions, but addressing the climate and ecological crises requires scrutinizing the environmental impact of every industry, including higher education. As universities compete to showcase their sustainability efforts, can we rely on them to tell us the truth?

The campus-community coalition Cornell on Fire has been researching Cornell’s public messaging and actions on climate for the past year. Dishearteningly, we have found that Cornell’s administration echoes every major talking point from the Big Oil disinformation playbook.

The report’s executive summary highlights key elements of the deception campaign waged by fossil fuel companies. Cornell mirrors each point. The Congressional report states that Big Oil companies “seek to position natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ between coal and cleaner, renewable energy.” Cornell, in a similar vein, falsely claims that natural gas is a “lower-carbon energy source” and a “bridge” fuel that has enabled them to slash emissions by 50%, paving the way to carbon neutrality.

Congress says that Big Oil companies “seek to portray natural gas as a green, climate-friendly fuel, while internally acknowledging that there is significant scientific evidence that the lifecycle emissions from gas are as bad as coal and are incompatible with scientific emissions reduction targets.” 
In comparison, Cornell portrays its transition to natural gas as driving huge emissions reductions on campus. However, internal documents reveal that its own climate scientists have repeatedly warned University leadership that the school is omitting the true scope of natural gas emissions from the University’s Baseline Inventory (the greenhouse gas accounting measure used to track progress towards Cornell’s carbon neutrality goals), leading to emissions underreporting. Instead of updating their Baseline Inventory to reflect the true scope of emissions from methane gas, Cornell has tucked those upstream methane emissions on a separate graph on a separate page – allowing them to present an inflated narrative of progress toward carbon neutrality on their main reporting tool, the Baseline Inventory. 

If Cornell’s misreporting was defensible given scientific uncertainty in 2008, when the University transitioned from coal to natural gas, it is indefensible today. Following years of research, a recent Nature article reports that natural gas emissions have been underestimated by a factor of three — confirming what Cornell’s own climate scientists have been urging Cornell leadership to acknowledge for years. 

According to Congress, Big Oil companies “make public pledges to support the Paris Agreement and to achieve net zero emissions while internally recognizing that they could not achieve those goals or referring to them as outside of their business plans.” 

Cornell publicly supports international climate goals while touting a “climate action plan” that falls far short. Cornell’s highly-acclaimed 2030 Project is built on the premise that “this is the decade of action,” yet the university does not aim to halve emissions by 2030 — a science-based target that Columbia University pursues. Cornell aspires to carbon neutrality by 2035, but unlike Columbia, it excludes from this target key sectors of the campus footprint, notably procurement and student travel, and exempts non-Ithaca campuses like Cornell AgriTech. Even with this limited target, though Cornell publicly claims it is on track, its own numbers show it is not

The recent Congressional report states that Big Oil companies “privately lobby…against pro-climate legislation and regulations that they publicly claimed to support.”

While publicly boasting “aggressive goals” for campus building standards, Cornell has quietly submitted amendments to Ithaca’s Green Building Code, seeking to water it down and make itself exempt from the fossil-fuel phaseout on new construction. Cornell also lobbies for anti-climate policies like airport expansion; submits disinformation in support of its plans for petroleum-based artificial turf fields, harmful on every level from land use to waste disposal; and celebrates fossil fuel dynasties as “generous” intergenerational donors. 

And finally, Congress identifies that Big Oil companies “publicly promoted algae-based biofuels as an innovative low-carbon technology while investing little in its research and development and then canceling the programs entirely.” 

Note resemblances with the long-promised Earth Source Heat Project (ESH) that Cornell is heavily gambling on to heat campus renewably. This experimental project is several years delayed, and according to expert consultant Professor Emeritus Anthony Ingraffea, its chances of success are “at best 50/50” — yet Cornell continues to promote ESH as a catch-all sustainability solution to delay action on other critical fronts.

Cornell echoes the broader culture of doublespeak popular among those who temporarily benefit from a destructive system. Of course, there are two sides to every story. Perhaps Cornell leadership has made mistakes in good faith. Now that Big Oil’s lies are exposed, it’s time for a course correction. We call on Cornell to: 

(1) Publicly admit that its current emissions pledges fall far short of what is needed. 

(2) Report the full scope of campus emissions accurately on the Baseline Inventory, and admit that emissions have not reduced since tracking began in 2008. 

(3) Rally the Cornell community around comprehensive climate goals to transform how we use energy and resources, to meet international, science-based targets. 

(4) Implement powerful policies to meet those goals and consistently track and report progress towards them, foregrounding leadership from climate justice communities.  

(5) Support the Ithaca Green New Deal building code and stop lobbying for anti-climate policies like airport expansion. 

The Congressional hearing on Big Oil’s deception brings us one step closer to holding the fossil fuel industry accountable. Will we hold Cornell University accountable for propagating disinformation and doublespeak in our name? The fight for our futures relies on closing the gap between rhetoric and action on climate. We can’t afford to wait. 

Bethany Ojalehto Mays is an Assistant Professor of Human Development and Leila Wilmers is a Postdoctoral Associate in the Department of Sociology. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected].

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