UPDATE: AGU Board Votes to Continue Relationship with ExxonMobil

Late last Friday afternoon, we received a letter and supporting information from Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) and Congressman Lieu (D-Cal), asking the AGU Board to reconsider its recent decision to maintain a relationship with ExxonMobil. Earlier this year, I informed you about a letter AGU had received from a group of members and other scientists calling for us to sever our relationship with ExxonMobil (which has sponsored the student breakfast at the Fall Meeting for a number of years). Then, nearly a month ago, I announced the AGU Board’s decision to continue a relationship with ExxonMobil including allowing them to be a sponsor of the breakfast should they offer it.

The Board felt that the issues raised presented an opportunity – and an obligation – to directly engage ExxonMobil and the energy industry more broadly, and to bring into that conversation representatives of governmental, environmental, economic and related scientific sectors. Societal challenges concerning energy use, demographic changes, climate change and more require that people and organizations with diverse viewpoints and expertise work together. As an evidence-based organization with roots in both the climate and energy communities, AGU is uniquely situated to convene that kind of dialogue. Since that announcement, we have received more than 100 emails and numerous tweets and comments. The opinions expressed in the emails were diverse, with members expressing both disapproval and approval of the decision – and many voicing support for AGU’s intention to increase our efforts to build a productive dialogue with the broader energy industry. The social media response was predominantly critical of the decision.

Regarding the most recent letter, for those of you who are not familiar, Senator Whitehouse has been an active proponent of action on climate change as well as a defender of climate science in Congress, and AGU awarded him the AGU Presidential Citation in 2015. Congressman Lieu is equally supportive of action on climate change, and he has recently been recognized as a rising star in the energy and environmental policy world.

We have communicated to Senator Whitehouse and Congressman Lieu the Board’s commitment to review and discuss the information they presented to us. We have also informed them that when we assess ExxonMobil’s actions, AGU must look at what they are saying and doing about the science, and not at potential legislation that we cannot take a position on, such as a carbon tax. In the meantime, we are continuing our work to establish a constructive dialogue about these issues, engaging all sides. We are exploring appointing a working group to develop options for engagement that we can consider.

This does not mean that we are endorsing ExxonMobil, or that we are not monitoring the outcomes of current investigations by State Attorneys General into ExxonMobil’s past actions.

While I understand that some of you are supportive of the Board’s recent decision and some of you remain uncomfortable, I sincerely encourage you all to consider being a part of the development of a strategy for our engagement with energy industry – and ExxonMobil, as part of that larger industry. Regardless of whether or not ExxonMobil continues to sponsor the student breakfast at the Fall Meeting, our goal for engaging the broader energy industry is to stimulate a more transparent and meaningful dialogue about climate and energy and the roles the science and business communities should play in addressing issues where science does – and needs to – inform society. We hope that you will be a part of that dialogue.

As always, we encourage all AGU members to share their thoughts and concerns with us so that they can inform any future discussions the Board (and Council) may have on this matter.

23 Responses to “UPDATE: AGU Board Votes to Continue Relationship with ExxonMobil”

  1. Jeremy Winick

    Since in theory members get to vote for members of the AGI board that make these decisions such as the continuation of the agreement with Exxon, the membership should be informed on how the members of the board voted and the views on such an important issue of those running for board positions.

    Reply
    • Joan Buhrman

      Jeremy – In order to protect the deliberations of the Board and give them the freedom to discuss sensitive matters, we don’t discuss individual votes on Board matters. All views and options are thoroughly discussed and weighed, and all Board members agree to support the final decision once made.

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      • Nathan Phillips

        Dear Ms. Buhrman,
        Are Board members free to speak individually for themselves about their own positions, or are they bound by a non-disclosure agreement?

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        • Joan Buhrman

          The code of conduct AGU Board members agree to says: “Members will support the decisions of the Board and respect the confidentiality of members’ opinions.” It also says: “While we may disagree with Board colleagues during meetings–and discuss personal views with members if asked–we demonstrate a unified front and support of the ultimate decisions made by the Board. We do not betray confidences. We can convey the general outcomes of Board discussions, but not the details of who said what during Board meetings, conference calls, and email discussions.”

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          • Charles Greene

            Is there a provision in the AGU bylaws for bringing an issue as controversial as this one up for a vote by the full AGU membership? When the Board makes a decision as important as this one without sharing its deliberations with the membership and without explaining why it is accepting at face value the claims of innocence from an organization with a proven history of deception, then it starts to make scientists like myself, who have been members for almost 30 years, wonder what set of values does this society abide by? What harm has been done to the society’s reputation when Senator Whitehouse, who was awarded last year’s AGU Presidential Citation, felt compelled to publicly rebuke the Board’s decision?

      • Jeremy Winick

        There surely is a case for not revealing transcripts of the deliberations of the board of directors, as words said in discussing and debating an issue can be taken out of context, but the board members should be able to write a few paragraphs outlining their positions – or there should be a “minority report” just as there are dissenting opinions on court rulings. I don’t believe the board should be like the presidents cabinet or the joint chiefs of staff, since they represent the AGU membership, not just a consulting group for the president.

        I don’t think a cutting of of a relationship with Exxon should be done because of their support of specific candidates or issues (even ones that I adamantly disagree with), but their subterfuge in supporting disinformation, defamation of scientists, is reprehensible and against AGU policy for scientific integrity. I don’t see how the AGU board’s justification of keeping the status quo relationship can be justified.

        I think we need a discussion of the roll of the board of AGU. When we vote for them, I hope we can have information that allows us to make an informed decision, not just a popularity contest using their fields of research and their scientific accomplishments.

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  2. Nathan Phillips

    By all means, engage; just engage without the financial conflict.

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  3. Hugh Hudson

    This update just has more waffling. There was overwhelming condemnation of the Board decision in the Prow comments, so why the uncertainty here? We should just drop the bribe.

    Hugh

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  4. Kwabena Asante

    Should AGU treat members who are climate deniers differently than it treats external corporations or sponsors? Membership fees, private donations and corporate sponsorships are all forms of financial contributions. For consistency, AGU should either make acceptance of climate change a condition for membership and all financial contributions or continue to engage with all parties…even climate deniers and the corporations that support them.

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    • Charles Greene

      The issue about dropping Exxon-Mobil as an AGU sponsor has nothing to do with it being in the fossil fuel business nor whether it is a climate change denying organization or not. It is about the company having knowledge about the risks of climate change from its own research, using that knowledge to protect its own interests, and then covering up that knowledge while purposefully misinforming the general public, policymakers, and its shareholders. Lying to the public and policymakers is reprehensible behavior, and we shall see whether it achieved the level of being illegal or not. Misinforming or failing to disclose information to shareholders is potential Securities and Exchange fraud. Is this the kind of organization that we want to be accepting support from. What kind of signal does AGU’s decision send to the graduate students attending that breakfast. Just as with lunch, there is no such thing as a free breakfast.

      Reply
      • Kwabena Asante

        If the issue is criminal conduct, then the standard should be a adverse court ruling or at least a regulatory board finding. It is improper to ask AGU’s board to act in the absence of an adverse legal finding. Ours is a governing board. It cannot also become judge and jury. If membership feels such a body is required in the organization then set up an ethics board. Otherwise, we must continue to rely on adverse legal findings by courts and other regulatory bodies.

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  5. Dwain Butler

    I like the idea/concept of a minority report (w/o identifications), but wholly support the confidentiality of individual member votes in Board/Council proceedings, which result in an AGU decision report/paper. This is reminiscent in a way of the debate several years ago about revealing the identities of NSF proposal reviewers; such a revelation of the identities of reviewers would totally undermine the peer-review process. I know the context is different–volunteer reviewers versus elected Board members–however, the AGU Board Members are in a certain sense “volunteers,” since they agreed to allow their names on ballots. Now a “political-type” statement: transparency in all things related to governance is a direct path to anarchy and functional stalemate. Consider the U.S. Congress and the Supreme Court; both institutions are now totally politicized and transparent (relative to actual votes of individual members) and the votes are available in real time. How different would it be if members of Congress were able to confidentially vote their true feelings and understanding of issues (without public scrutiny and pressures from party and lobby groups)? It’s hard to believe that nearly 100% of the Republican members and some Democrats in congress are so stupid as to deny the existence of climate change and be able to link the effects with cause. I know that ExxonMobil and other coal/oil/gas companies and their associated Foundations have been guilty of bribing members of Congress and paying for climate change denial presentations, op-ed articles, and peer-reviewed papers. However, ExxonMobil employs many geoscientists and over time can change and evolve. Unlike the big tobacco companies of the past, the big energy companies actually employ geoscientists (and not just paid consultant deniers of the tobacco-cancer link) and can steer toward a balanced energy production future which does not continue to contribute to climate change. Also, the big energy company can evolve to contribute to the requirements for adaptation to what seems to be the inevitable consequences of our unrestrained use of fossil fuels. (Disclosure: I am a member of AGU, SEG, EEGS, and EAGE and am a retired Federal Govt. employee and NOT an employee of or consultant to ExxonMobil.)

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  6. Warren Hamilton

    What’s to discuss? There is lots of precedent in our society for AGU’s choice of a bribe over principle. The disinformation institutes supported by Exxon and its ilk generate no data and instead rant paranoia–most scientists drylab their data in order to destroy cpitalism, and government agencies are corrupt. Go into their websites and see for yourself. The chairmen of the major science committees in both houses of Congress parrot this, and are out to greatly decrease science funding throughout government. But why should that concern AGU?

    Reply
  7. Jack Xie

    Since AGU leadership does not release voting record of the board, they are admitting the issue is controversial. I for one strongly against the relationship with Exxon. Other science societies, and now politicians, are questioning about this bad decision, or use it as an example of bad steps taken by a science society.

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  8. Jiakang Xie

    To prove my point (which I sent earlier but seems to be censored by AGU, below is a letter from Union of Concerned scientists to members today (AGU leadership, you should be ashamed! )

    Dear Member,

    UCS has always defended scientists from baseless and politically-motivated harassment by politicians.

    Now the attack is on us.

    The U.S. House Science Committee, headed by climate denier Representative Lamar Smith, is demanding that UCS turn over years of correspondence between our staff and allied groups about our work to expose ExxonMobil’s history of deception on global warming.¹

    This enormously burdensome demand is designed not only to intimidate us, but to take time and resources away from our critical work to promote climate solutions. So, make no mistake: we’ll defend ourselves and our staff with everything we’ve got—but we need you with us now.

    Help fight back against the harassment of UCS staff and supporters by renewing your support now.

    Why this attack, why us, and why now?

    UCS helped uncover what might be the biggest smoking gun in the climate movement’s history: ExxonMobil knew for decades that burning fossil fuels would lead to devastating global warming. And, instead of alerting the public, executives downplayed their own studies and funded disinformation campaigns to block action against fossil fuels.²

    Our work to expose this secret history helped lead state attorneys general to launch investigations.³ We poked the bear, Jiakang. And, now, the backlash begins.

    And it’s not just UCS in the crosshairs—it’s other nonprofits who speak the truth about ExxonMobil, and even the attorneys general themselves.

    Renew your support for the Union of Concerned Scientists to make sure we have the resources to keep exposing fossil fuel misinformation as we fend off these political attacks.

    This is just the latest abuse of power by Representative Smith, who’s spent the last nine months harassing National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration climate scientists whose research he doesn’t like.⁴

    UCS has already started pushing back on Representative Smith for these attacks—embarrassing him in the media and dropping more than 90,000 citizen petitions on his desk—so it’s no wonder we’re being targeted now.⁵

    We’re ready to take on this fight and the tough fights ahead, but how strong we are depends on you. Make a gift to the Union of Concerned Scientists to renew your support now.

    Please, member, stand with us now.

    Ken Kimmell Sincerely,
    Ken Kimmell
    Ken Kimmell
    President
    Union of Concerned Scientists

    Reply
  9. Donna Goss

    There are different views of how a corporate entity functions from diabolical, such as get as much as possible before consumers die off from global warming, to beneficial, such as how can we cooperate to provide enough petroleum for safe, cautious, and careful consumption while continuing civilized human life on Earth. People must realize the importance of honesty and compassion for achieving fairness in working within the corporation and its relation to consumers. Perhaps there should be regular corporate sessions for discussing and planning their goals and methods. Perhaps employees and consumers need to be sorted carefully in preference of more beneficial traits to maintain a mutually helpful civilization.

    Reply
  10. Charles Greene

    The issue about dropping Exxon-Mobil as an AGU sponsor has nothing to do with it being in the fossil fuel business nor whether it is a climate change denying organization or not. It is about the company having knowledge about the risks of climate change from its own research, using that knowledge to protect its own interests, and then covering up that knowledge while purposefully misinforming the general public, policymakers, and its shareholders. Lying to the public and policymakers is reprehensible behavior, and we shall see whether it achieved the level of being illegal or not. Misinforming or failing to disclose information to shareholders is potential Securities and Exchange fraud. Is this the kind of organization that we want to be accepting support from? What kind of signal does AGU’s decision send to the graduate students attending that breakfast? Just as with lunch, there is no such thing as a free breakfast.

    Reply
  11. Jonathan Slavin

    Even apart from this particular issue, the idea that the board will present a united front in supporting board decisions seems out of place in a democratically run organization. This sounds exactly like “democratic centralism” which was the policy in the USSR. If board members are elected by the membership then their votes ought to be available to the members. If not, how are we to know whether or not to support those members in future elections?

    Reply

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