What will it take for Yale to act on climate change?

Tomorrow, April 20, the Dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Indy Burke, is hosting former Shell Executive Vice President David Lawrence for a talk. His speech is titled: “The World Needs More Energy and Less CO2: Tough Questions, Hard Choices and Possible Solutions.”

Oil company Shell has been responsible for a slew of injustices to local communities worldwide, including attempted drilling in the Canadian Arctic against Inuit and indigenous communities’ wishes, neglected spills and exposure of communities to pollution in Nigeria, and tar sands mining in Alberta, which significantly raises air pollution and cancer levels in predominantly First Nations communities.

The message the dean is sending by inviting Lawrence is clear: Our environmental school embraces the fossil fuel industry, providing them with a platform in academia.

It would be one thing if this invitation were extended under the auspices of authentic dialogue, where students would be free — dare I say encouraged — to ask critical questions of the speaker. Or, if representatives from any of the communities across continents affected by Shell’s drilling practices and human rights violations were equally given a platform to speak. However, Dean Burke made it clear in an email to the community that only questions selected in advance would be asked, using an online form which also asked for participants’ names. How can this talk be “a conversation,” as the dean calls it?

Lawrence “led the early stages of major deepwater exploration” and directed the Shell Find and Development Company in New Orleans. His website boasts: “Under his leadership, Shell made 10 significant discoveries in the Gulf of Mexico and Latin America and established major new positions in both conventional and unconventional gas and liquids plays in Canada, the U.S. and Latin America.” Any mention of Lawrence’s decades of employment at Shell, however, are absent from public event postings.

Inviting a former fossil fuel executive to an environmental school is shocking and deeply disappointing. This talk is the environmental equivalent of the dean of the School of Public Health inviting a Philip Morris executive to speak about the innovative ways tobacco products no longer cause cancer.

Indeed, Shell — along with other fossil fuel companies — was founded in 2015 to be complicit in misinforming the public on climate change, utilizing the very same strategies as tobacco companies which sought to distort the link between smoking and cancer. Shell internally agreed about the science of climate change decades ago, yet rather than act, executives buried their heads in the sand.

It should be noted that this situation isn’t unique to Yale. As a matter of fact, Stanford professor Sally Benson — the previous speaker in Dean Burke’s “Conversation” series — directs the Global Climate and Energy Project, which is funded by ExxonMobil. And just this February, a Shell executive spoke at the Harvard Kennedy School. The event was also framed as a “balanced” discussion about climate change solutions, yet the event was sponsored by Shell Oil — and the Kennedy School has received at least $3.75 million from the company. The fossil fuel industry has significant influence in academia, particularly when it comes to climate and energy research.

At the F&ES, where we unequivocally uphold values of scientific integrity and justice, it is unacceptable to invite the executive of a fossil fuel company — one known to distort science — to campus without providing space for communities affected by fossil fuels to speak, and without inviting uncensored questions from the audience.

More than anything, our school trains the next generation of leaders who will solve the climate crisis. We conduct research, the results of which tell us that we must transition immediately toward a just and fossil-free world.

Does Dean Burke have the courage to listen to what the science is telling us?

Leehi Yona is a graduate student at the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Contact her at leehi.yona@yale.edu .