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World’s largest Earth science organization to continue accepting ExxonMobil sponsorship despite calls from 250+ geoscientists

Posted on 18 April 2016 by Guest Author

Geoffrey Supran is a PhD candidate in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT.  Ploy Achakulwisut is a PhD candidate in atmospheric chemistry at Harvard University. Ben Scandella is a PhD candidate in environmental science at MIT. Britta Voss earned a PhD in Earth science from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Last week, the President of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) - the world’s largest association of Earth scientists - announced the AGU Board’s decision to continue accepting sponsorship from ExxonMobil, despite calls for an end to this relationship from more than 250 geoscientists owing to ExxonMobil’s past and present climate science disinformation.

The AGU’s 2015 Organizational Support Policy states that “AGU will not accept funding from organizational partners that promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science,” and that Organizational Partners are bodies that “share a vested interest in and commitment to advancing and communicating science and its power to ensure a sustainable future.

MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel sees the AGU’s decision as “a mockery of its own bylaw,” stating that, “If the AGU cannot turn down a mere $35K from a high-profile disinformer like Exxon, then it is hard to imagine it ever adhering to its bylaw. I am considering withdrawing from the AGU.”

Emanuel was one of the 108 geoscientists who sent an open letter to the AGU President on February 22, 2016, urging the association to end its sponsorship deal with ExxonMobil. Since then, more than 170 geoscientists worldwide have signed on. The AGU President initially responded that “The AGU Board of Directors will take up the questions raised in this letter at their upcoming meeting in April.” At this meeting, the AGU Board passed a motion approving the continuation of its “current engagement between ExxonMobil and AGU including acceptance of funding from ExxonMobil.”

In light of the AGU’s decision and reasoning, Former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Harvard Professor James J. McCarthy, another letter signatory, commented, "My jaw dropped when I read that ‘Ultimately, we concluded that it was not possible to determine conclusively whether or not ExxonMobil is currently participating in misinformation about science, either directly or indirectly.’ A new report just this week show that ExxonMobil is still spending tens of millions obstructing climate legislation. How much more is on the ‘indirect’ ledger?"

Indeed, the AGU’s decision appears to ignore the consilience of evidence demonstrating ExxonMobil’s ongoing support of climate science misinformation. Originators of the open letter submitted a report documenting ExxonMobil’s present involvement in climate misinformation for the Board’s consideration (a copy of the report is available for download here). The report provides specific examples of how ExxonMobil is “in violation of AGU’s Policy because it remains a leading sponsor of think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations that promote climate science misinformation. Moreover, ExxonMobil financially supports more than 100 climate-denying members of Congress and continues to generate its own misinformative comments about climate science.” Such examples include:

(1) During ExxonMobil’s 2015 Annual Meeting of Shareholders, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson casted doubt about the reliability of climate models by remarking: “we don’t really know what the climate effects of 600 ppm versus 450 ppm [of atmospheric CO2] will be because the models simply are not that good.”

(2) At the ExxonMobil-sponsored 2015 Annual Conference of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Stephen Moore, a member of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Advisory Board, asserted that: “The biggest scam of the last 100 years is global warming...It’s no surprise that when you give these professors $10 billion, they’re going to find a problem.”

In addition to Emanuel and McCarthy, many other signatories of the open letter voiced their disappointment and concern over the AGU’s decision. Cornell Professor Charles Greene stated, “At what level does the behavior of a corporate sponsor become sufficiently reprehensible for AGU to refuse its support? I guess that a corporation like ExxonMobil, which has deceived the general public for decades while placing human society at great risk, has not achieved that level. The only conclusion to be drawn is that AGU will accept money from just about any corporate entity, no matter how unethical its behavior. I certainly will not attend an ExxonMobil-sponsored Fall Meeting, and I hope that every AGU member who feels the same way about this lapse in judgement will consider sending a similar message.”

What was called for was an exercise of judgment. Instead, the AGU avoided taking a principled stand by claiming it is not possible for it to make a judgement. The leadership seems prepared to accept some loss of membership, but what it may not be prepared for is the redoubled commitment of members who won't relent in shining an even brighter light on the inconsistency of the AGU's mission of a sustainable planetary future with its endorsement of ExxonMobil's past and current activities,” said Nathan Phillips, Professor of Earth and Environment at Boston University.

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Comments 1 to 14:

  1. Great report.  So much for ethical smarts.   AGU failed to take a pricipled stand - so now members must take a stand.   I'm not sure the AGU was the optimal organization for climate scientists anyway..   This may be an opportunity for change. 

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  2. Time to send a letter to Margaret Leinen (president of AGU) reminding her that accepting support from ExxonModile and supporting ALEC damage the reputation and credibility of the organization and risk the loss of members.

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Fixed link

  3. It would be nice to specify all major AGU sponsors along ExxonMobil, along with their contributions (if such data exists). Presumably, we know about ExxonMobil only with its contribution be $35K.

    That list would put Kerry's lament about "mockery of [...] a mere $35K" into a good perspective. Without such perspective I cannot know if the lament is reasonable.

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  4. I suppose i could say, "It's all about the money, but maybe I should say, "It's only about the money".  I don't think it takes an exhaustive investigation by a sleuth like Sherlock Holmes to find out whether a donor is part of the problem or part of the solution.  AGU should just place itself above and beyond reproach, then we wouldn't have to split hairs over whether we are upholding the (apparently former) high ethical standards (of yesteryear?)  On the other hand, people (corporations) don't give you money unless they have something to gain.  Fossil fuel companies have everything to lose by having to leave their assets "in the ground", so subversion and chicanery by these groups is the only way they can assure themselves of selling us every last drop of the 1.750 trillion barrels of oil (or gas or coal) left in the ground.  The solution for AGU is to either ban all "gifts" from industries who profit from the production of fossil fuels, or for the memebrship to jump ship and start a new organization (today).

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  5. First off, I pass along the comment that AGU was foolish to accept $35 k for a total sell out... it is worth 10 or 20 times that.  And so that price is so low, that they should just sweep it away. 

    Next we should all suspect that all media is corrupted.   Recently Scienitific American discovered Clean Coal (although calling it something else.) - SciAm is an advertiser-supported arm of the same publishing house that owns the Journal Nature.  (how do they make their money?)  Presumably the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group knows what they are doing. 

    As does Exxon's and sponsorhip of AGU - it must pay off immesurably. 

    Climate scientists may want to bolt from AGU  - the big issue is communicating climate science to the world,,, and AGU seems to make that more difficult - rather, the could do better. 

    Just model the future:  in 2 or 5 years will the AGU be ready to make clear statements about mitigation?   Or will we be stuck with Exxon adaptation planning?

    Again, looking 5 years ahead, shouldn't there be a scientifica organization that assembles new research and then delivers unified statements without regard for the business needs of an oil company?

    At the very least, AGU should hide the sponsors names to prevent bias.  And the very best thing would be a new organization of scientists...say something non-profit, disconnected from economic bias. 

    This seem so obvioius,  why would AGU blunder so?

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  6. Does anyone happen to know how many members of the AGU are employed by the fossil fuel industry? I suspect that it's a goodly share. 

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  7. I would expect that FF industry is the largest employer worldwide of geophysists. It certainly makes sense for Exxon to be supporting AGU given the fundamental importance of geophysics to oil exploration. Nothing at all sinister about that.

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  8. Interesting question scaddenp, what do you think the split would be between geo-types in FF based industries vs other mining/extraction - iron ore, gold, titanium dioxide and everything else?

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  9. GlennTamblyn:

    In the same vein, how many members of the AGU Board of Directors are (or have been) employed by the extraction industry?

    The bottom-line is that the AGU is a "Big Tent" organization. I cannot help but wonder what a survey of its entire membership about the scientific consensus re manmade climate change would reveal?

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  10. I have a completely different take on this issue completely. As long as there are no strings attached to present bogus denier quackery, not only should AGU accept ExxonMobil money, they should actually ask for double or quadruple from from them. A lot of the earth sciences revolve around cleaning up messes the fossil fuel industry, so why shouldn't that be funded by the industry causing the mess? 

    This whole controversy seems to be a little like cutting off ones nose to spite ones face. Spite is an ugly emotion. It causes people to act irrationally.

    Now if you could actually make a case for the money being used to fund AGW denialism, or influence AGU to act irresponcibly, then a reasonable case could be made to refuse this money from ExxonMobile. I haven't seen such a case being made though. 

    So IMHO take the money and use it wisely.

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  11. i work in the oil and gas exploration industry and can tell you people in my line of work, even if they admit the climate is warming because of fossil fuel extraction, don't really care. they care about where they are getting money or a job much more. 

    i think we need to be honest in and recognize the huge obstacle of apathy in the western world concerning AGW. 

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  12. Glenn, aside from magnetics, geophysics has much smaller role in mineral industry than in petroleum. Seismic is the paramount tool in petroleum exploration  (and coal) but it is a far more useful in sedimentary rock than in the "hard rock" terrains of most other minerals. After seismic, would come well log petrophysics which is also used in coal, but again, this has much more limited applications in hard rock minerals.

    John, that would be interesting and I note a different slant taken on climate by AAPG compared to AGU.

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  13. @11,

    People who work in oil and gas could easily surmise that it's a regulated markets problem and that they aren't responsible which I would suay is correct!

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  14. Let's remember that the AGU took considerable grief the last couple of years, expecially from some of its membership, for a Climate 'friendly' mission statement that many felt lacked the proper imput from their wide ranging members. They may be still smarting from that experience.

    But what I see as the almost worse than accepting Exxon's continued support is the way the AGU felt comfortable publicly thumbing their nose at the Climate Science establishment. This is something they wouldn't have done as recently as a year ago, imho. This signifies a troubling change. If Kerry Emanuel and other noted, high profile Climate scientists are considering breaking ties with the AGU, they should do it now and do it very publicly. There needs to be a forceful response to this, not just a few harsh words.

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