Scientists call on AGU to pull Exxon sponsorship

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 02/22/2016 09:03 AM EST

Hundreds of scientists, from ex-NASA chief James Hansen to “Merchants of Doubt” historian Naomi Oreskes, are calling on the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to stop accepting Exxon Mobil Corp. as a sponsor for its annual meeting.

Correction appended.

Hundreds of scientists, from ex-NASA chief James Hansen to "Merchants of Doubt" historian Naomi Oreskes, are calling on the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to stop accepting Exxon Mobil Corp. as a sponsor for its annual meeting.

AGU’s meeting is the largest earth science conference in the world. It attracts tens of thousands of scientists and requires a conference space so large that it is used by Apple Inc. and Google Inc. for their yearly developer meetings. There are hundreds of sessions on the science of climate change. Exxon Mobil is a prominent sponsor and recruiter at the meeting and paid AGU $35,000 last year.


"[Exxon] has long worked to undermine the very work that our community has done," said Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University. "At best, it is hypocritical for us to accept their funds. It’s sort of the opposite of biting the hand that feeds you. It is the hand that feeds you biting you."

AGU’s president, Margaret Leinen, disagreed. In a blog post last night, she wrote that AGU’s board decided in Sept. 2015 that Exxon Mobil’s current public statements and activities are "not inconsistent" with AGU’s views and with the scientific consensus on climate change.

"Our research did not find any information that demonstrates that they are currently involved in such activities," she wrote. Leinen added that while Exxon’s past positions on climate change may not have been consistent with AGU’s, companies modify their positions over time.

"But, if a company is excluded from the community based on its past actions, in spite of corrections or improvements that have been made over time, what are the implications? Does the rejection — or the inclusion — of such a company in our scientific community best serve the continuation of the progress we seek? We believe that inclusion is the best option," she wrote.

AGU would not exclude Exxon unless there is "verifiable" information showing Exxon is currently involved in the promotion of misinformation, she wrote.

AGU’s board will consult with stakeholders and consider the questions raised in the letter in an April meeting.

Exxon’s media relations adviser, Scott Silvestri, said the company has not suppressed climate change research, and allegations to that effect are "deliberately misleading." The company has a 40-year history of climate research and has collaborations with the Department of Energy and universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he said.

"Exxon Mobil recognizes that climate risks are real, and responsible actions are warranted," Silvestri said. "In view of the monumental scale of the world’s need for energy, solutions are not easy — they will take time, huge investments and thoughtful policies."

The oil company is under investigation by the attorneys general of New York and California for allegedly misleading the public and investors on climate change. Those moves follow two media exposés by InsideClimate News and Columbia University in partnership with the Los Angeles Times that showed the company’s own scientists studied climate change beginning in the 1970s, even as the company publicly argued in the ’90s that the science was inconclusive.

"Exxon Mobil has included information about the business risk of climate change for many years in our 10-K, Corporate Citizenship Report and in other reports to shareholders," Silvestri said.

In the ’90s, Exxon funded think tanks such as the George C. Marshall Institute, which disputes mainstream climate change scientific opinions (ClimateWire, Nov. 25, 2015). It also funded scientists, such as Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, who has suggested the sun — not humans — has caused global warming (ClimateWire, Mar. 23, 2015).

Decades ago, Exxon funded efforts to change textbooks at schools to deny that humans have caused climate change, said Hansen, the former NASA scientist and climate activist.

More recently, Exxon has been supportive of a tax on carbon, but Hansen accused the company of being "tricky" with this strategy.

"At present, they are saying good words about the need for a carbon tax, but they know that a tax will either not happen or, if it does, it will not continue to rise, because the public does not like taxes," Hansen said, adding that a serious move would be to support a carbon fee and dividend.

The petition was spearheaded by students at Harvard University, and was signed by hundreds of AGU member scientists and non-member scientists. It was delivered to AGU this morning, in time for the organization’s Ocean Sciences meeting in New Orleans.

AGU adopted an official policy in August 2015 that states the organization cannot accept funding from partners who "promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science."

Ploy Achakulwisut, a graduate student of atmospheric sciences at Harvard who assembled the petition with MIT student Ben Scandella and MIT alumna Britta Voss, argued that Exxon’s sponsorship clashes with the policy.

"We wanted to show that there is support for AGU to basically honor its own policy from within the community of AGU scientists and also other concerned geoscientists," she said.

Peter Frumhoff, the director of science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who signed the letter, stressed that the petitioners are not asking AGU to stop accepting funding from all oil and gas companies — just Exxon.

"AGU has set an unequivocal policy that restricts accepting funding from organizations that support or engage in misinformation on science," he said. "That’s as it should be for any scientific society. We are just calling for AGU to implement the policy we already have."

Achakulwisut and her classmates decided on the petition after they arrived at the annual meeting last year and found prominent Exxon Mobil logos. Already concerned about climate change, Achakulwisut was influenced by the climate divestment movement at Harvard and MIT, and by Oreskes’ "Merchants of Doubt," a 2010 book about the corporate funding behind what she dubbed misinformation campaigns.

"It just really angered me that all this has been happening for decades," Achakulwisut said. "A lot of scientists have been speaking out about it, which is great, but on an institutional level, I feel like AGU, or even academic institutions like Harvard or MIT, could be doing more."

The geosciences include oil and gas exploration, and some of AGU’s members are petroleum geoscientists. Oreskes argued that this does not excuse AGU for accepting Exxon’s sponsorship.

Research has shown that nations cannot burn all available fossil fuel reserves, at least without removing excess carbon dioxide from the air, if they are to avoid dangerous global warming.

"The fact that some of us have worked on oil and gas in the past does not obviate the fact that we need to stop doing that, unless we can get CCS [carbon capture and sequestration] to work, which is a very big ‘unless,’" Oreskes said.

Exxon’s sponsorship allows the company to greenwash its questionable history, Oreskes said. She drew comparisons between the company’s actions and the tobacco industry.

"It’s very comparable to when the tobacco industry gave funds to biomedical research, universities, medical centers, etc., in order to appear to be a good corporate citizen, while working assiduously to undermine the biomedical evidence that those same institutions were producing," she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the affiliations of Ben Scandella and Britta Voss. They are a current and former student at MIT, respectively.