AGU board votes to accept Exxon cash, sparking backlash

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 04/15/2016 01:11 PM EDT

This story was updated at 3:35 p.m. EDT.

The world’s largest organization of earth scientists voted yesterday to continue accepting funding from Exxon Mobil Corp., which is under investigation by state attorneys general for allegedly sowing doubt about climate change.

The American Geophysical Union’s board of directors couldn’t determine whether the oil company is "currently" engaged in misinformation, AGU President Margaret Leinen wrote in a blog post.


A majority of board members voted to continue accepting Exxon’s sponsorship after reviewing more than 400 pages of emails, letters, tweets, news reports, a transcript from a shareholder meeting and peer-reviewed articles, she wrote.

The company gave $35,000 last year to sponsor a breakfast at AGU’s annual meeting, a December extravaganza that draws thousands of scientists.

"We concluded that it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly, and that AGU’s acceptance of sponsorship of the 2015 Student Breakfast does not constitute a threat to AGU’s reputation," Leinen wrote.

Of the 16 voting board members, three declared potential conflicts of interest and nearly all members belong to universities that receive funding from Exxon Mobil, she wrote.

The board meeting had been necessitated by a February petition from more than 100 scientists asking AGU to stop accepting Exxon’s sponsorship (ClimateWire, Feb. 22).

The petitioners sent the board a report that details the company’s longtime funding of organizations that deny human-caused climate change.

Exxon Mobil said that the complaints to the AGU are misleading and it recognizes climate risks are real and responsible actions are warranted.

"To suggest that we had reached definitive conclusions, decades before the world’s experts and while climate science was in an early stage of development, is not credible," said spokesman Alan Jeffers in an email. "We are taking action by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in its operations, helping consumers reduce their emissions, supporting research and participating in constructive dialogue on policy options."

The backlash from earth scientists was swift and harsh. AGU has an official policy that states the organization will not accept funds from partners who "promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science."

"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," said Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I am considering withdrawing from the AGU."

James Hansen, ex-NASA scientist and climate advocate, said AGU’s narrow focus on whether Exxon is currently engaging in misinformation sidesteps the real issue.

"The fossil fuel industry is not making a serious effort to become an industry of clean energy, it is easier to fool the public," he wrote in a statement. "AGU pretends they do not understand the real issue. They are both hypocrites unwilling to be inconvenienced for the common good."

Charles Greene, an atmospheric scientist at Cornell University, said AGU’s decision indicates it would accept money from all corporations regardless of ethics.

"I certainly will not attend an Exxon Mobil-sponsored Fall Meeting, and I hope that every AGU member who feels the same way about this lapse in judgment will consider sending a similar message," he said.

The oil company is being investigated by attorneys general in multiple states and territories over accusations that it misled the public and investors on climate change (Greenwire, March 29).

The moves follow investigations by InsideClimate News, Columbia University and the Los Angeles Times that showed the company’s own scientists had warned executives about climate change since the 1970s, even as the company publicly argued that the science around climate change is inconclusive.