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The Dire Truth

Updated: Jul 30, 2023



A revitalized Sunrise Brown calls on the university to sever ties with fossil fuels, once and for all


Illustration by Nicholas Edwards


Sunrise Brown’s new report starts with a September storm, one of the many deluges that have driven a staggering 104 percent increase in “heavy downpours” in the Ocean State. Climate change is already transforming the world around us. The report asks: what is Brown University’s role? “Brown doesn’t really make it that obvious how much money they take [from the fossil fuel industry],” Ethan Drake, Sunrise’s University task-force co-lead, told the College Hill Independent. “It’s not really in their interest to tell everyone … so we went and did the research.”


On Monday, February 27, Sunrise Brown released Dissociate Now: A Fossil-Free Brown. Meticulously written and researched, Dissociate Now argues that Brown University has a responsibility to go further in fighting the climate crisis by becoming “the first university ever to completely dissociate from fossil fuels.”


“We’re sort of following the footsteps of a few other school student activist groups that had done similar things,” Drake said. In September 2022, Princeton University announced that it would dissociate from 90 fossil fuel companies—including a prohibition on fossil fuel research funding. “We really liked that idea,” Drake said.

The report’s release marked the launch of Sunrise Brown’s broader DIRE campaign, which aims to push Brown to “dissociate from fossil fuels and reinvest in Rhode Island.” Notably, DIRE pairs fossil fuel dissociation with a call for Brown to increase its financial commitment to Providence, joining groups like the Graduate Labor Organization and Students for Educational Equity, as the Indy has previously reported.


“Brown is very well positioned to do this,” Caitlyn Carpenter, one of the authors of the report, told the Indy. “It holds a lot of weight in its name, and is able to be a really good building block to strip an industry [of] that social license to operate.”


After the conclusion of a protest to launch DIRE on Friday, March 3, demonstrators brought a copy of the report to University Hall. “Our next step will be to review it in full,” Brown spokesperson Brian Clark told nonprofit newsroom ecoRI.


This recent mobilization heralds a new era for Sunrise Brown, one of 400 ‘hubs’ of the national youth-led Sunrise Movement, which pushes politicians to act on climate change. Brown’s campus environmental movement has enjoyed unprecedented success in the past few years: in March 2020, President Christina Paxson announced that the university would stop investing in fossil fuel extraction, and last spring the university committed to stop doing business with purveyors of science disinformation “to the best extent practicable.” These wins built on a long history of environmental activism at Brown, a history that the new report painstakingly documents.


But during 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic pushed student organizing online, Sunrise’s Brown chapter dissolved. It was only this past October that Sunrise Brown relaunched with a bang: even before the group’s first meeting, dozens of protesting Sunrise members flooded a classroom where an ExxonMobile representative was holding a recruiting event. “We have a lot of stuff on the agenda and a lot to do,” hub coordinator Isaac Slevin told the Brown Daily Herald at the time. With Dissociate Now and the DIRE campaign, the hub is taking its next big step.


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If Brown has already divested from fossil fuel, what does the report call for? The key word is dissociation, which entails more than divestment—a complete severing of financial ties. In this spirit, the report puts forward three main recommendations.

First, Sunrise Brown calls on the university to stop accepting gifts and research funding from fossil fuel companies. Since 2010, journal authors affiliated with the university have published at least 63 articles “with funding from the world’s fifty largest oil and gas companies,” according to the report, and from 2003 to 2019, Brown took in more than $20 million in donations from nonprofits associated with these firms or the “climate denial movement” more broadly. However, the report’s sum total only includes donations from nonprofits, which must report their giving to the government. Unreported contributions from individuals and private organizations mean “much more fossil fuel money flows to Brown.”


The $20 million figure comprises 93 contributions, but these were not all equal. The charitable arm of investment management company The Vanguard Group, which also funds “dozens” of right-wing think tanks, donated at least $10,157,039 to Brown over the 16-year period—nearly half of the total. For tracking donations, Sunrise Brown got help from Fossil Free Research, a coalition that works to stop fossil fuel funding in university scholarship. The work was not easy: these companies “have a lot of adjacent but related foundations that donate to universities or nonprofits,” design lead Dawson Phillips told the Indy. “It can be difficult because it’s kind of a convoluted and oftentimes intentionally opaque process.”


Second, the report recommends that Brown stop helping fossil fuel companies recruit Brown students. The university shouldn’t allow these companies to “market themselves to students as ethical and sustainable firms,” the report says, as ExxonMobil attempted last fall.


Finally, the report’s third recommendation is for Brown to offer retirement plans that are not tied to fossil fuels. Though Brown itself has ended such investments, many of the retirement portfolio options currently offered to faculty and staff are still reliant on the success of the fossil fuel industry.


At times it waxes antagonistic—“fossil fuel executives talk out of both sides of their mouths”—but mostly the report maintains a measured, scholarly tone, dissecting industry talking points and earnestly laying out the group’s case. And like a good legal brief, the report adopts several avenues of attack. “The devastating impacts of the fossil fuel industry are not felt in statistics and risk assessment reports,” the authors write. Environmental pollution and climate change harm everyone, but especially marginalized communities. Even if one eschews ethics, allowing fossil fuel companies to fund scientific scholarship also creates an obvious “research bias,” the report says. And, of course, there is the “reputational damage associated with … planetary destruction.”


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With an executive summary, a methodology section, and a detailed appendix, the report has the feel of a professional piece of scholarship. The bright orange design, Phillips said, was meant to convey “a sense of urgency and seriousness.” The group didn’t want to use the “stereotypical green” of conventional eco-friendly projects, he continued—the issue of climate change is “destructive.” And the banners that run alongside the report’s text? Strips of collage made with photos of solar panels, wind turbines, and “photos of wildfires and money and businessmen,” according to Phillips.


“We were hoping to show how interconnected all these systems are and how it’s hard to talk about one without the other,” he said. “It’s hard to talk about the problems without addressing the solutions and vice versa.”


According to Ava Ward, a report contributor, research for the report started in the fall semester. Many members dedicated their time during winter break, and the team went through a process of “very rapid, kind of hectic editing, putting it all together, trying to get it ready as soon as possible” after the spring semester began, Ward said.


“We felt like investigative journalists,” Carpenter said. “You get to know people in a different context than you usually get to know people.” She added that the team began to “have these odd little inside jokes that are in relation to these very specific sentences that you put in a 20 page report that nobody else will ever [understand].”

“There are real students behind this,” she continued. “There are people who really care and who put a lot of time into it.” Research meetings included “digging up the dirt sessions,” where they worked on spreadsheets “for hours and hours.” But “all of that just went out the window when we were like ‘this is not efficient,” Carpenter said. “We need to streamline [a] consistent process for doing the research, because that’s what gives us validity in the end.”


Drake mentioned that the report shows not only Brown’s connections to the fossil fuel industry, but also that “it wouldn’t be impossible to dissociate.”


“It’s not like the majority of funding for research is coming from these companies. It’s just a really small percent,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity to pursue a better path.”







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