A Brower Youth Award Winner Outlines a New Fossil Free Research Campaign

The Brower Youth Awards annually highlight the most impactful environmental youth leaders from across North America. Award recipients undergo a rigorous application review process and represent the most creative, young environmental leaders of today. We were delighted to hear that longtime StudentNation writer Ilana Cohen was a recipient of the 2022 Brower Award.

In 2018, seeing traditional political institutions’ failure to take bold climate action, Ilana co-founded the New York City chapter of the national youth climate justice coalition Zero Hour and organized one of the nation’s first Youth Climate Marches. Shortly after, as a first-year student at Harvard University, she helped relaunch the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign, which secured a historic victory last fall when the university pledged to divest its $53 billion endowment from the fossil fuel industry. Ilana, 22, has since co-founded Fossil Free Research, an international grassroots campaign uniting students, academics, and experts against the toxic influence of Big Oil money on climate change research. The campaign aims to accelerate a just energy transition by protecting the integrity and academic freedom of researchers as their work ultimately influences the climate discourse and policy. Already, Fossil Free Research has published an open letter signed by more than 750 academics endorsing its call, staged an international direct action to hold major universities accountable, and formed a coalition to coordinate efforts across college campuses.

Ilana sent us her acceptance speech, which she delivered in-person at a ceremony in San Francisco on October 18.

I received this award for my work helping win divestment at Harvard. Last fall, when Harvard announced it would divest its $53 billion endowment, my peers and I were ecstatic. Three years after relaunching the Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard campaign, we had done everything imaginable—petitioned the administration, written searing op-eds, staged mock oil spills, even gone viral risking arrest storming the football field at half-time of the 2019 Harvard-Yale game and filed a legal complaint with the state attorney general—before Harvard capitulated and opened the divestment floodgates. In the next two months alone, a dozen major institutions followed suit. The win and its ripple effects felt like a vindication of student and grassroots activist power.

But after the celebration, we realized this first step was not enough. While Harvard was moving to make its endowment fossil free, it was also refusing to address the numerous other ways in which it leverages its prestige and resources to prop up the fossil fuel industry—most alarming and insidiously, by letting the industry sponsor and collaborate on climate research.

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