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Why is the largest Earth science conference still sponsored by Exxon?

Posted on 6 January 2016 by Guest Author

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.

“Thank You to Our Sponsors: ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell...” This was the first message to greet us upon arrival at the 2015 American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting - the world’s largest gathering of Earth and space scientists.

agu sponsor board

AGU 2015 fall meeting “Thank you to our sponsors” board.

As aspiring and early career environmental scientists, this was a dismaying welcome, for we are immensely disturbed and angered by the well-documented complicity of these companies in climate denial and disinformation. For example, recent investigative journalism has shed light on the fact that ExxonMobil,informed by their in-house scientists, has known about the devastating global warming effects of fossil fuel burning since the late 1970s, but spent the next decades funding disinformation campaigns to confuse the public, slander scientists, and sabotage science - the very science conducted by thousands of AGU members. Even today, ExxonMobil and Chevron continue to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group that routinely misrepresents climate science to US state legislators and attempts to block pro-renewable energy policies.

The impacts of Exxon’s tactics have been devastating. Thanks in part to Exxon, the American public remains confused and polarized about climate change. Thanks in part to Exxon, climate science-denying Republicans in Congress and lobby groups operating at the state level remain a major obstacle to U.S. efforts to mitigate climate change. 

And thanks in no small part to Exxon, climate action has been delayed at the global level; as the international community began to consider curbing greenhouse gas emissions with the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, Exxon orchestrated and funded anti-Kyoto campaigns, including participation in the Global Climate Coalition. The latter was so successful at shifting debate that the George W. Bush administration credited it with playing a key role in its rejection of the Kyoto Protocol.

Yet throughout the week-long conference of Earth scientists, Exxon was promoted as an excellent career option. The geoscience professionals showcase - an “opportunity to talk with featured employers” - proudly included Exxon. In a series of career advice workshops on transitioning beyond academia, our speaker more than once named Exxon as a potential employer in her hypothetical case studies, whereas cigarette company Benson & Hedges was derisively put forward as an example recruiter we’d never dream of accepting.

As the week drew to an end, we were left to wonder why it is that at the largest convergence of Earth and climate scientists, the hosting organization would seemingly engage in a serious conflict of interest by enthusiastically accepting support from companies that actively undermine the work of many of its members. Or why, if it’s now taboo to work for tobacco companies because they deceived the public about the dangers of smoking, the next generation of Earth science scholars still finds encouragement in pursuing careers in the fossil fuel industry, which continues to twist truths about climate change.

Some may argue that Exxon atones for its wrongdoings in other ways, but its actions are invariably in bad faith. For example, the company has never put its weight behind a carbon tax despite claims of support for the concept. It is the very disingenuousness of Exxon’s ways that makes their greenwashing efforts - like sponsoring AGU - so crucial to their survival.

AGU states that its mission and core values are to “promote discovery in Earth science for the benefit of humanity” and for “a sustainable future.” But by allowing Exxon to appropriate AGU’s institutional social license to help legitimize the company’s climate disinformation, and by granting it the privilege to recruit from AGU’s own cohort of emerging scholars, AGU is undermining the work of its own members.

The issue of career paths also raises a deeper question that we as a community must address - however uncomfortable - as to why we are still promoting the training and recruitment of the next generation of scientists to develop future technologies and methods for discovering more oil and gas reserves, when science has told us that no more than one third of existing reserves can be burned to avoid dangerous climate change.

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Comments 1 to 27:

  1. Great article.   It is wonderful that you have been so direct.  There have been attempts to create a "Hippocratic Oath for scientists".  Certainly ethical standards for industrial scientists are a challenging subject.   At the heart of the challenge for industrial scientists is the "Non-disclosure Agreement" that we must sign to gain employment.   Although, often, I was able to speak openly within a company, outside the company all communication had to have prior approval, i.e., only positive comments/reports about the company, its science, and products were allowed.  Of course there is no real protection for transgressions of the "Non-disclosure Agreement".   For industrial scientists to be taken seriously, we will need to be able to discuss industrial science without fear or favour.  

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  2. Good article, but I'm not convinced that it is completely out of line for Exxon to be sponsoring an avent such as this.  Afterall the procedues they use to discover new reserves and then extract them are based on geophysical knowledge.  I agree that what they have not said publicly about climate change is concerning by the way.

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  3. Perhaps Exxon are accepted as sponsors as they have spent millions  on research into renewables, predominantly and predictably biofuels from algae, as well as millions on campaigns against climate change.  I guess like many massive companies Exxon is happy to walk both sides of the street as in that way it reduces risk to profits.  

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  4. I have a very mixed reaction to this article, probably because I have ties to AGU, find the evidence for AGW blindingly obvious, and I also work in oil and gas as a geophysicist. The sentiment I understand completely, but it seems a bit naive and black and white. Big Oil supports a substantial number of earth science programs (not just petroleum programs) around the world with lots of money. I personally benefitted from their scholarship funding while doing research that had nothing to do with oil and gas. On the other hand, it would be fascinating (and admittedly fun in a way) to watch it play out if organizations like AGU and GSA started refusing industry funding as a matter of principle. They can certainly justify it to some extent given the behavior they've cited. Although I do wonder how big of a funding hole that would leave.

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  5. Oh I forgot my only technical disagreement - as for careers, oil and gas are used for more than just burning. There will be demand for hydrocarbons even after the eventual shift to renewables for energy. Not as much demand as now, obviously, but it's not zero.

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  6. I disagree with suggestions that the actions of Exxon that delayed the development of global better understanding of what is going on regarding the impacts of burning fosil fuels can be excused because of 'other things Exxon does'. Exxon's actions are particularly unaccepable becasue 'they actually did know better'.

    The actions of Exxon regarding the development and acceptance of climayte science were clearly contrary to proper science. That needs to be understood and acted upon, or there is little hope for humanity to have a better future on this or any other planet.

    If the power players in control of what Exxon did were (does are) willing to try to delay or discredit the developing better understanding of climate science because of interests in maximizing 'profit, employment, tax revenue' or any other temporary regional 'perception of benefit for a portion of humanity', what other developing better understanding regarding the potential unacceptability of their pursuits would they also be 'interested in carefully but deliberately fighting against'?

    The advancement of humanity can only occur through the constant improvement of the understanding of what is going on with the objective of sustainably improving the conditions for all life on this amazing planet (the only viable future for humanity is a robust diversity living in a diversity of ways that are a sustainable and locally adapted appropriate parts of the robust diversity of life on this or any other amazing planet). Any 'effort to understand how to temporarily profit more in ways contrary to the true advancement of humanity' need to simply be understood to be unacceptable.

    Advancement requires efforts to effectively and rapidly undo damaging developments regardless of the perceptions of prosperity that have regionally temporarily been created through the deliberate efforts to generate poular support for activity and attitudes that can be understood to be unacceptable and unsustainable.

    It is irrational and unacceptable to pursue a 'balance' between the 'benefits obtained by a portion of the totality of humanity through time' with 'the reduced opportunity and consequences faced by others (particularly the reduction of opportunity and the increasing of challenges for future global generations)'.

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  7. Exxon gets huge benefits of international legitimacy from sponsoring this high-profile event. We have to make it clear to the world that the basic 'business model' of Exxon and its ilk--profiting from baking the planet--is not only illegitimate, but morally repugnant.

    Their sponsorship of AGU is like medical conferences being sponsered by tobacco companies--not only does it legitimize the sponsor, but it tends to delegitimize the good work of conference itself.

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  8. tmbtx, I assume you are talking about plastics. If so that is indeed a pertinent remark. I would add that, in fact, we should be concerned about preserving oil reserves for that very purpose instead of burning them. Plastics have innumerable applications that have become vital in medecine/surgery as well as countless other areas. We're not as close as replacing oil as a primary material for these as we are to produce electricity by other means than burning fossil carbon.

    I'd say it is also not a problem to use petroleum for plastic production, so long as the energy for the processes comes from something else than burning carbon. The medical field has yet to solve the problem of single use item that are bio contaminated since, as of now, disposal is mostly by incineration. So, not only the material is lost, but the fossil carbon is released in the atmosphere as well. I'm sure it is a small contribution compared to coal and oil burning, which should be addressed in priority, especially coal.

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  9. Sooo, plastics are not an evironmental problem???

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  10. "No more than one third"? We have to leave 75% of all known fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we want to have a chance to stay under 2°C warming by the end of this century, not just 67%.

    => Scientists warn 75% of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground

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  11. Regarding plastics, of course they have their own problems although mass extinction is probably not one them. Plastic has revolutionized many industries. Has it been a net positive? I don't know. That's not a question I can answer really. There are days I regret industrialization, not that dwelling on it accomplishes anything. It's done.

    I would like to see society in general stop externalizing all its costs. This would include, for example, companies being responsible for the disposal of their products when they are used/broken etc. If Sony had to take back all their TV's once they were obselete I imagine we'd see a lot less planned obselescence. Some of that is accomplished by recycling now, but it seems pretty marginal compared to the size of the problem. But I digress.

    Back on topic, I think they are correct overall to push AGU to reconsider its sponsorship policies. I would just ask the people pushing it to also allow the organization to be deliberate about it and take the time to mitigate any financial consequences. Maybe they can afford to quit cold turkey with the corporate funding, but I kind of doubt it. Then again if they decided to just drop them and let the chips fall where they may I'd support that too.

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  12. I understand the initial emotional reaction some might have when they see or are told something like this. There are no compelling reasons to exclude funding from Exxon. The AGU has been by upfront about its position on climate change which is in direct opposition to some of Exxon's interests and claims. Take away those funds from Exxon and the only thing that will change is the budget has now been reduced for scientists which support measures to combat climate changes caused by people. So Exxon will attempt the same strategy of disinformation only it may be more successful as scientists who are in direct opposition to Exxon's disinformation now have less funds to get their own findings out there. I would say it's puzzling why Exxon would fund it as there appears to be no benefit to them for it. 

    But if you look up the organizational structure of Exxon Mobil it is an incredibly huge corporation. Somewhere in the ballpark of 75000-100000 employees. Dozens of departments or affiliate companies. Most don't interact with each other. They only seem to tie in through the corporate headquarters itself. So there are very legitimate sciences going on within Exxon. Unfortunately the corporate level is the face and brains of the company with respect policies and the need to squeeze out every drop of revenue possible. So they simply ignore their scientists or even worse try to think of ways to discredit their own scientists findings. 

    So take into account all that. Also take into account how difficult and competitive it can be to getting any type of funding in science programs/research or even a job and it quickly becomes clear why someone would accept a job with them or accept funds from them. The scientist is typically not doing anything unethical, although some could do so at times. But if you can get funded and there are no restrictions on what you can publish. You can't control what the marketing, accounting, lawyers, etc do with it at the corporate level. You only know they will do the same thing to the science of climates no matter how you get your funding. You may potentially make a positive impact at the company or within the energy production industries, even if it's only very small. Then why reject those funds. There are no logical or ethical reasons to reject it. The only argument against it would be fairly weak and mostly ideological reasoning. But rejecting it based on those ideological reasons will not actually achieve very much (if anything) towards those ideals.

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  13. I have a separate opinion that I think is perfectly on topic but feel free to not agree with me on that. The more emotional and passionate anyone appears to be when it comes to a science issue that is highly polarized the more they can be erroneously accused of being the "liberal left". That whole conspiracy nonsense used to turn the issue into college elitists versus the working class. I am not saying it is wrong to have emotion or passion. It is an issue with very disturbing consequences for not taking action. But we should not take actions or include language in articles which would make us appear to no longer be impartial scientists (which most of us are impartial and approach this appropriately). So unless there's a valid reason to reject funding, such as being required to withhold any unfavorable conclusions, then it does more harm to exclude them. 

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  14. Readers should be aware that there is no guarantee that some posters here are not in the pay of Exxon.

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  15. cs41y,

    Popularity, profitability, perceptions of prosperity and any other side-benefits thought to be obtained like tax revenue ...

    None of that excuses any group of people who actually try to keep others from fully better understanding what is going on.

    The fact that an organization as big as Exxon has developed and allowed its leadership to be controlled by such attitudes and resulting actions is unacceptable and damaging. There is no 'kind non-passionate' way to refer to what my better understanding of what is going on has made me aware of.

    And the belief that this type of group should be 'negotiated with or have its selfish interests balanced with the advancement of humanity' would be laughable if it wasn't for the tragic consequences of any success obtained by these type of people through their efforts to get away with what they can understand is unacceptable.

    The real trouble-makers in every organization or society are fairly well known by powerful wealthy people (because they illigitimately got away with becoming part of the powerful and wealthy). Too many people like that succeeding is a serious detriment to the advancement of humanity (and advancement of humanity to a lasting better future through better understandinga nd awareness has to be the objective of science, not temporarily unsustainably increasing profits, employment or taxes)

    That understanding is the best explanation of the damaging developments that have kept humanity from advancing to a lasting better future for all. I do not care what major global problem you choose to look into, that understanding explains it as well or better than beliefs that something else like 'religion' or 'race' is the root cause (because in almost every one of those cases callous greedy people have chosen to allow, support or promote intolerance to gain more undeserved advantage).

    So the 'science issue' of Exxon is not 'just science' and should not be considered without passion. There is too much at stake to prolong the success of callous greed and intolerance defying and fighting against the developing better understanding of who they are and how unacceptable their attitudes and actions are.

    The focus needs to be kept on the important matters being investigated and better understood. That is what scientists, engineers, any other professionals and all other 'responsible adults' are supposed to responsibly and conscientiously do. That is the only path to a better future for humanity (it is actually the only viable path to any future for humanity).

    So what has been done by people through Exxon has to be called out for what it is, regardless of any other interests. The advancement of humanity to a lasting better future for all life on this or any other amazing planet has to trump any other considerations.

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  16. Perhaps the tax arrangements that Exxon uses to sponsor the AGU are to their advantage. Considering that such contributions would be listed as a cost in their accounts and would reduce their reported profits for tax purposes, then this means that the tax payer is actually subsidising such contributions at the current company tax rate. Exxon are not doing it out of goodwill.

    Exxon, like many companies, employ some very highly paid accountancy firms, law firms and marketing firms to protect their corporate interests. It must be to their financial advantage to pay huge amounts of money to these people to minimise tax, make litigation difficult when they've done the wrong thing, and to continually spin their corporate image, otherwise they wouldn't spend so much. It is not likely that they do such things because they are moral corporate citizens motivated to protect the environment, improve society and to make the world a better place. They do it to protect the huge salaries of their top executives, and to maximise their profits, dividends and share price.

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  17. wili,

    which posters do you believe are "Agents of Exxon"

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  18. i brought this issue up at a GSA section meeting last year to someone at their booth, that it's inconsistent to on one hand support science and the conclusions of climate scientists concerning AGW and on the other take funds from a corporation that actively has undermined climate change solutions and science.

    exxon name is mud up here and I wish people care but they largely don't, not even among many earth scientists. it's all about $$.

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  19. Exxon is practicing the classic marketing philosophy of Playboy Magazine: bottle up your smut with an article written by a person generally respected by a large segment of the public (e.g. Ronald Reagan) and "nice people" will buy it with the justification that they must read Reagans' article while hiding their true motive to view the centerfold. Supporters for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton exhibit this distinctly human behavioral trait:  Trump makes his money off the moral weaknesses and compulsiveness of people who gamble, but his supporters point out that he, "sells real estate".  Clinton's checkered past and present conduct is ignored because, "she is an intelligent and experienced woman". Playboy, Trump and Clinton are not too different from the Baptist Church deacon and pillar of the community who molests little girls in the sunday school restroom.  Exxon shares these characteristics, as do countless numbers of persons and institutions around the world.  Can AGU be condemned for pandering to Exxon while seeking scientific facts with which to conserve the planet, all the while knowing that Exxon is digging under their back fence?  Sure they can. Instead of it being all about the money, it could be all about the morals.

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  20. Those mentioning the 'algae fuel' etc ventures should remember that "teaching the controversy" is done by funding the extreme positions outside the center in all directions.  THe tactic is to suck energy out of  the political center where actual progress can be made.   Fund the extreme "the only acceptable fuel is algae" and "the only alternative is wind" and "the only alternative is solar" while also funding ALEC and the Republicans — pull all the attention away from the moderate possibility of actual agreement.

    They have money to try to make puppets of all the activist organizations out there.  The hardest thing to refuse is money.

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  21. ryland - Ah, implying the old "scientists are willing to lie for the money" canard. I haven't heard that in at least, oh, a week or so. I wonder if that qualifies as "sloganeering"?

    Lobbyists who charge by the hour to write in support of CO2, coal, and unbridled fossil fuel use, writings they admit probably won't pass peer review, have nothing in common with academics who submit grant requests in open competition to produce meaningful science. 

    For example

    Professor Frank Clemente, a sociologist from Penn State university, was asked if he could produce a report “to counter damaging research linking coal to premature deaths (in particular the World Health Organization’s figure that 3.7 million people die per year from fossil fuel pollution)”.

    He said that this was within his skill set; that he could be quoted using his university job title; and that it would cost around $15,000 for an 8–10 page paper. He also explained that he charged $6,000 for writing a newspaper op-ed.

    When asked whether he would need to declare where the money came from, Professor Clemente said: “There is no requirement to declare source funding in the US.”

    Yeesh. It's like you're not even trying anymore, ryland. 

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  22. Ryland - as moderator I deleted a comment which was redolent with trolling and sloganeering. If you actually have something germane to say that is relevant to climate science, then try again - with examples, evidence and why you think what you say is relevant to climate science. Dont bother trolling with subtle insinuations of fraud or agenda.

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  23. I had no hidden agenda at all and certainly not about climate science or scientists. The line "The hardest thing to refuse is money" immediately made me think of porkbarrelling and the way in which Australian governments, at both State and Federal level, hand out tax payers' money to further their own electoral chances. If my comment was taken as "insinuations of fraud or agenda" I think that reflects more on the mindset of the reader than of the writer

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] And the relevance to any part of climate science is? 

  24. ryland - You're claiming your previous (deleted) comment equating Exxon funding to government funding actually applies to a completely different (not to mention off-topic and completely unmentioned) context? Quite an inventive post-hoc justification, IMO.

    Pull the other one, it's got bells on. 

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  25. In answer to the question from PS@23. The first part of the deleted comment referred  to Exxon knowing that many are easily seduced by money.  The second part added that governments are aware of this too.  My comment @3 made several days ago mentions Exxon fundng both renewables research and  campaigns against climate change, I believe  the deleted comment  added to that.

    KR@24  IMO you have no evidence whatsoever for your statements 

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] You are still not linking "pork-barrelling by governments" to anything about climate change science. Your personal opinions on the behavour of governments is not relevant to this topic unless you think it affects the way science is conducted.

  26. No I don't think governments "affect the way science is conducted' but I do think they affect what science is conducted.  For example see here and here 

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Your references show governments fund climate science (as they should). So? The problem? From where I sit, I dont see you making relevant comment on this article, but rather attempting to use this forum for political commentary. Plenty of other blogs for this.

  27. ryland @26, Yes or No: Government funding has not distorted the results of climate science, merely enabled its existance.  

    If no, in what way did it distort the science, and where is your evidence of that?  If yes, what was your point in posting - and why have you not made it clear that you think there is no distortion from the funding before now?

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    Moderator Response:

    [PS] Ryland appears to be attempting offtopic commentary. DNFTT.

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