Jody Freeman discusses her past ConocoPhillips independent board role and why engagement is critical to making progress on climate change

Engagement is critical to making progress on climate change 

By Jody Freeman

I can understand why it is generating debate that an environmental lawyer like me who cares about fighting climate change also serves as an independent board member of ConocoPhillips. I worked on climate policy in the Obama White House, helping to create strong rules to drive down demand for oil and gas. I founded Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program and established its first Environmental Law Clinic. I co-Chair the Presidential Committee on Sustainability, which recommended the University’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets and works to see them implemented. I believe that climate change is a grave public health, social, and economic threat, and an urgent existential problem that the world must solve. I share with many others in the university community, larger environmental community, and broader society, the goal of moving the world to a low carbon future as fast as possible and forcefully addressing the enormous challenges posed by climate change. I have devoted my career to this problem, and it is the core motivation for all the work I do. 

So why serve on a board of a company that continues to profit from producing oil and gas? 

I believe in the value of broad engagement during the energy transition. We urgently need to enlist everyone – government, business, investors, technologists, consumers, activists, and yes, even fossil fuel producers – in this challenge. We need public and private investment at a massive scale, and government policies to reduce emissions and drive down fossil energy demand. And we need activism and advocacy to keep the pressure on. We have made real progress – in the U.S. the 2021 infrastructure bill and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act passed by Congress have helped, by making historic investments in clean energy technologies and infrastructure.  Green alternatives are becoming more available, affordable, and deployable in many sectors of the economy. But although I wish it were possible, clean energy cannot displace fossil energy overnight.

Inevitably there will be a transition period, and during that time we will continue to depend on fossil energy for some share of our transportation, manufacturing, electricity, and agricultural needs. This reality is true even as the costs of wind and solar power continue to drop, and as greater numbers of electric cars and trucks come rolling off the assembly lines. Some industries are especially difficult to decarbonize, and green alternatives still aren’t available at the scale and cost we need for many products and services central to our daily lives.  

This is why engagement matters now. During the energy transition, we must ensure that oil and gas are more responsibly produced and that over time, each barrel and cubic foot of fossil energy become less greenhouse-gas intensive. Fossil fuel companies must promptly cut their own emissions, take account of climate risk, and develop and implement transition plans. Fossil fuel companies can also invest in and scale technologies that will help other industries to decarbonize. In the near term, I believe that the oil and gas industry must be part of the solution to climate change. 

To help drive this change, it is critical that fossil fuel boards include independent directors with a strong and informed climate perspective. My role as an independent director on the board of ConocoPhillips is about helping to advance the transition to a low-carbon economy. The key word is “independent.” I work in my role to help the company deliver on, and strengthen, its climate commitments. From my seat at the board table, I participate candidly and forcefully in discussion, introducing an important perspective that otherwise would be missing. I press for solutions and progress. No single director can transform any company or industry, but I believe that I make a positive difference, and if I did not, I would not do this work.

Some people have claimed that my being on the board creates a conflict of interest with my university obligations. My work at Harvard is paramount and always will be. But my role on the board is entirely consistent with the other work I do – teaching, researching, writing, advising, and advocating for climate policy, at Harvard and elsewhere. I wear one hat – as an advocate for positive change to address the climate challenge.

I comply with the University’s conflict of interest rules. I routinely and prominently disclose my board role on my bio and web pages, in my publications, at public appearances, and with the media. I discuss it in my classroom. 

I am not an advocate or spokesperson for ConocoPhillips (or the oil and gas industry) and do not and have not lobbied on its behalf. Suggestions that I do so are wrong. As my law school colleague John Coates has said about an allegation made against me on this score, “To be clear: Jody’s board role at Conoco was known to me, I reached out to her first, and she did not request a meeting or ‘lobby’ me or others at the SEC for Conoco.” Any report to the contrary is false and misleading. 

The company has never sought to influence, constrain or in any way shape my independent academic or policy work. While on the board, I have publicly and privately advocated for federal rules to cut greenhouse gas emissions from all major sectors of the economy, including the oil and gas sector, and argued that the oil and gas industry must aggressively reduce its emissions, especially methane, reconsider its business model, and do much more. I have repeatedly argued that Congress must put a price on carbon to reduce demand for fossil energy, which is necessary to accelerate the transition. And I have debunked deniers making phony arguments based on distorted science. 

Activism is very important in pressuring governments to act and pushing institutions and companies to change. But to solve the climate crisis, we must use every tool and pursue every avenue. Some work from the inside, others from the outside. I choose to do both. 

Jody Freeman is the Archibald Cox Professor of Law at Harvard University. She served as an independent board member of ConocoPhillips from 2012-2023.