Opinion: Scripps’ partnership with SDG&E doesn’t make sense

Stroth is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at UC San Diego and lives in La Jolla. Cooper is a Ph.D. student in chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego and lives in Clairemont. McKie is a Ph.D. student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and lives in La Jolla. All are members of the Graduate and Professional Student Association’s Climate Action and Policy Committee at UC San Diego.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography has long prided itself as a national leader in climate change research, yet it is pursuing a relationship with a utility owned by a regressive corporation that produces dangerous fossil fuels. To be in compliance with the mandates of the California Public Utilities Commission, San Diego Gas & Electric signed a memorandum of understanding with Scripps in February 2021. The objective of the memo is to improve risk assessment models using the best available science for the protection of SDG&E’s operations and infrastructure from coastal flooding and wildfires exacerbated by the climate crisis. Scripps scientists bring technical expertise to the partnership as well as their image of climate mitigation. The research here is worthy; however, it’s concerning that Scripps’ reputation can be used to shield SDG&E’s unethical business practices.

SDG&E is owned by Sempra Energy, which divested $1.05 billion of renewable assets to pursue expanding methane infrastructure through 2024. Sempra shields its actions with greenwashed pledges to reduce methane emissions, while refusing to make a plan in line with the Paris Climate Accords. Additionally, SDG&E has been lobbying against rooftop solar by making it more expensive, discouraging new customers from transitioning to renewables. We find the vision of SDG&E’s memorandum of understanding with Scripps to establish “a nationally recognized model of climate resilience” to be paradoxical when SDG&E and Sempra are actively undercutting mitigation methods. In the aftermath of the city of San Diego’s franchise negotiations with SDG&E, we are curious what role Scripps played, however unintentionally, in “greenwashing” SDG&E’s image and allowing it 20 more years as our energy provider. Now, we are forced to adapt to the consequences of climate change without addressing the root cause, which is like bailing water out of a sinking ship instead of plugging the leak.

The California Public Utilities Commission also mandates SDG&E to prioritize disadvantaged communities in its assessments, but we question the authenticity of its commitments. As a publicly funded institution, Scripps is also accountable to members of communities most vulnerable to extreme weather intensified by climate change. The memorandum of understanding does not center community collaboration nor explicitly provide a plan to identify and engage with community leaders. Certainly we need a robust utility system that does not suffer power outages, but what are community leaders in San Diego really asking for? Municipalization, affordable electric bills and a utility that can be held accountable by the public. We ask ourselves, if there was communication between community leaders and our academic institution, would such partnerships easily arise? If those relationships were present, would SDG&E have the opportunity to laud its attempts to become “a nationally recognized model of climate resilience,” especially while San Diego was reconsidering its contract with the utility?

As a public institution, Scripps must be aware of the impact of its research partnerships. All aspects of community needs must be carefully considered, and we urge Scripps to holistically pursue community-based research with all of its partnerships, finding the common ground between community members and their private partners. While Scripps remains committed to working with SDG&E, we challenge it to reimagine the role a public university can play in its community.

Since community-based research funding centering climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience is lacking at the federal, state and local level, the urgency of the climate crisis may drive local research institutions to utilize funding from private industries. Moving forward, establishing research partnerships with fossil fuel industries profiting off of extractive and dangerous practices should be met with the same level of scrutiny as other harmful business practices. The University of California has a similar model for accepting funding from the tobacco industry, with a robust review process to ensure research is focused on restorative and community-friendly practices. Campuses should establish diverse review committees consisting of climate change scholars, experts in climate policy and community leaders to ensure that the research is sound, centers environmental justice and focuses on climate resilience.

With proper oversight, it is possible for adaptation research to be conducted without glorifying irresponsible organizations or advancing technologies that perpetuate the climate crisis. However, additional academic bureaucracy doesn’t constitute the transformative action required to stop climate change. We will keep on bailing water out of a sinking ship while partnering with the industries drilling holes in it unless our institutions commit boldly to plugging the leak. This begs the question: Is it worth it to take funding from untrustworthy companies responsible for the destruction of our climate system?

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