UPDATE: Exxon, AGU, and Corporate Support

I would like to update you on some of the feedback and information we have received since my last post, including a discussion that took place at last week’s Council meeting. I also want to tell you about the plan for the upcoming Board meeting, where this issue will be discussed.

In addition to comments on the post itself, over the past three weeks we have received more than 100 emails, letters and phone calls, and countless tweets and comments on Facebook. And the letter referenced in the post, which calls for AGU to sever our relationship with Exxon, has since received additional signatures, growing from 71 AGU members and 33 non-members, to 136 members and 81 non-members (as of 15 March).

This feedback, from AGU members and others in our community and beyond, expressed a wide variety of views, ranging from requests to completely sever the relationship immediately to suggestions for how the relationship could be expanded and made more productive to the view that severing the relationship would violate our scientific integrity. While the social media posts and public comments have tended to be one-sided, the emails received directly from members have been more nuanced and diverse in views expressed. A major theme that emerged is a strong desire among our members to see this issue is treated thoughtfully and with integrity, and to ensure that our discussions be representative of all sides of AGU’s community.

Because we know how important this is, we encouraged you to send us your comments and any information you might have about current activities that contradict ExxonMobil’s public statements about their position and actions. We also shared as much information with you as possible about our previous actions and our plans for moving forward. Please be assured that we remain committed to being just as transparent about any decisions that are made, as well as the basis for those decisions and the deliberation that occurred.

In the spirit of that commitment to transparency, I want to tell you about how the Council engaged on this issue during their meeting last week. While I won’t go into great detail about their discussion here, I will say that the Council’s discussions and concerns mirrored, pro and con, many of those we heard from the membership.  The feedback gathered during those thoughtful discussions will be consolidated, with the major themes and suggestions highlighted, and shared with the Board for their April meeting.

In addition to the Council feedback, all of the information, documentation and other correspondence we have received to date, as well as any new information that is provided prior to the meeting, will be shared with the Board to help inform their discussion. The Board used a similar process when they considered an earlier letter on this matter from a representative of the Union of Concerned Scientists last year. The originators of the current letter have requested that they be allowed to provide the Board with a new report, and we will include that report with material we provide to the Board.

When the Board meets, it is possible that a decision will be made about whether or not AGU should maintain its relationship with Exxon. However, it’s equally possible that the Board may instead ask for further research, or other steps, in an effort to better inform a later decision. While we recognize that there is a strong desire to see this matter addressed quickly, we also recognize that a matter of this significance deserves thorough and deliberative consideration. We owe our members nothing less.

In the meantime, we continue to welcome and encourage you to send us your feedback and any information you might have on this issue: president@agu.org.

30 Responses to “UPDATE: Exxon, AGU, and Corporate Support”

  1. Chris Measures

    Dear Margaret: Science is the search for the truth, regardless of how personally painful it may be sometimes. AGU represents Earth Scientists who adhere to this code of conduct in their scientific work and public statements. Thus it will be difficult for AGU to maintain its authority as this standard bearer if it simultaneously accepts funds from and/or supports an entity that seeks to deny scientific truth to the public. It is all about integrity in the end.

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  2. Indrani Das

    I don’t think we have or at least I have enough information about how EXXON is going to benefit from this relationship. Have they been transparent enough? Can we trust them to be transparent. Any decision we take now should be carefully weighed. I am in favor of deferring any decision until we know more. There is a huge shift in the mindset of industrialists towards more sustainable energy sources. I think we should push forward this relationship only when we see a similar sustainable agenda from EXXON, infact we should push them towards a more sustainable goal.

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  3. Neil Tangri

    As scientists, our standing in society is solely due to our dedication to telling the truth, as we see it. Exxon has proven in the past that it is willing to suppress the truth, and pay to do so. To continue to accept Exxon’s support invites more than a taint of corruption: it compromises our most invaluable asset.

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    • Mark Chopping

      Neil, you hit the nail on the head. Science is the search for truth but Exxon prefers to obfuscate for monetary profit, or ideology, or perhaps both. AGU has been a stellar organization for Earth and Space scientists but this association with Exxon is a stain on its reputation. What were the leadership thinking?

      Reply
  4. Martin Fisk

    March 17, 2016

    Margaret,

    The actions of Exxon’s executives’ show that they and others like them are ethically bankrupt. Society must take action so that future generations do not view our generation as the one that understood the problem but did not attempt to correct Earth’s trajectory that resulted in inundation of the coastlines, displaced millions, and most likely many worse consequences. Let’s think 2000 years into the future. If civilization has not collapsed, those living will wonder how could an intelligent society not hold those accountable who deceived the world and therefore contributed to a catastrophe that affected all future generations? When viewed by future generations, if AGU takes no action to show its displeasure with the fossil fuel industry’s actions, then its legacy will be one of complicity with and no better than the fossil fuel industry executives.

    Martin Fisk
    Professor of Oceanography
    Oregon State University

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    • Jožef Roškar, former Director of Slovenian Meteo Service

      I completely agree with the author of this message, Prof. Martin Fisk. How can we trust the company, which in the past channeled many millions to different organizations that challenged the scientific evidence of global warning (Naomi Oreskes, 2010), ExxonMobil was among the leaders (and probably still is) that supported deniers of climate change, caused by man. To maintain its scientific reputation, AGO should suspend any cooperation with ExxonMobile.

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  5. Michael Williamson

    As members we support the AGU position on global warming and the role played by burning of fossil fuels. The majority of earth scientists worldwide agree with this position, supported by research data and rigorous, peer reviewed analysis. EXXON supports alternative views in press and media campaigns, implying doubt in the research data for its own economic interests. By accepting support from EXXON, AGU may weaken the public perception of our strong position on the anthropogenic contribution to global warming. In my opinion, support from EXXON comes at a cost to AGU’s credibility on one of the most important issues facing humanity — not a fair exchange.

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  6. Keran O'Brienk

    When you allow a connection, solicit support or accept money from an organization,however innocently, you will be believed that you support its aims and goals. Our goal is scientific research. Exxon’s is profit from the sale and use of petroleum products. A connection with Exxon will tarnish our reputation.

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  7. Christopher Keating

    Ultimately, AGU, and all other organizations, have to decide what is their stand on the important issues. It sounds to me as if the board is not yet ready to do that. The question to ask is, “What is the position of the AGU on the issue of manmade climate change and the organizations that are spreading disinformation in an effort to undermine actions taken to alleviate the threat to mankind?” When the board answers that question, the rest will be easy.

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  8. Charles Greene

    Society is on a collision course with dangerous climate change and must attain carbon neutrality by mid-century or be prepared to remove excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during subsequent decades. The climate science tells us that approximately 80 percent of the world’s known fossil fuel reserves are unburnable and must remain in the ground if society is to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

    Unfortunately, after a misinformation campaign lasting decades, Exxon is still banking on the notion that society will not act quickly enough to strand the oil and gas industry’s current fossil fuel assets or make it unprofitable for the industry to continue exploring for new reserves. In fact, Exxon is following a business model that projects out to a roughly $14 trillion investment in new oil and gas reserves by 2035. If this business model is successful, then the recent climate goals agreed upon in Paris are doomed to failure. Is this the kind of sponsor AGU is willing to legitimize by taking its money?

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  9. Rachel Shelley

    Exxon’s active role in climate change denial and misleading the public puts them completely at odds with the ethos and integrity of the AGU members. The AGU should make a clear and visible stand against such an unethical practice by severing relationships with Exxon.

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  10. Alex Mayer

    Dear Margaret,
    I’ve been an AGU member for 30 years. I’ve been pleased with AGU’s courageous advocacy on climate change, including statements like this: Human‐Induced Climate Change Requires Urgent Action (http://sciencepolicy.agu.org/files/2013/07/AGU-Climate-Change-Position-Statement_August-2013.pdf). Much as I’d like to believe that the fossil fuel industry is changing and has the planet’s best interest at heart, I’m afraid that this is a naive attitude. I simply can’t reconcile the climate change advocacy that AGU has proudly taken on with the directly contradictory advocacy that the fossil fuel industry has promoted (see, for example, http://www.journalism.columbia.edu/page/1184-the-energy-and-environment-reporting-fellowship/8).
    Thank you,
    Alex Mayer
    Civil and Environmental Engineering
    Michigan Technological University

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  11. Terry Million

    The world is in serious trouble with climate change, and companies that continue to deny the issue are worsening the problem. Just as I will not vote for a politician who spouts climate change denial, I would prefer the AGU not partner with companies who do. We need to take a harder line in support of science we know to be true and against those who try to suppress the science for monetary gain. We have already lost far too much time because of companies like Exxon.

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  12. Richard Cronin, P.E.

    The science is NOT settled and ExxonMobil has worked in collaboration with Sierra Club on the climate change issue (BlloombergBusiness Dec. 15, 2015). . I’m afraid I do not think the words of government-funded academics is good enough on this issue. CO2 seeps out of the earth not just from volcanoes, but ridges, rifts, and via soil percolation ( See Robin Wylie, Univ. College of London – Oct. 15, 2013). Oregon State University Dept. of Geology estimates that there are one (1) million submarine volcanoes, including an uncounted number inside the Marianna Trench, center of the warm ocean waters driving El Nino. The very active Gakkel Ridge runs directly under the North Pole as well as submaine volcanoes directly beneath the North Pole. The Thwaites glacier is melting due to geothermal heat (Univ. of Texas Austin, June 10, 2014). Geologists have described Antarctica’s Bentley Subglacial Trench as a “magma blow torch” (Washington Univ. – Journal of Geophysical Research). TM Gerlach completely dismissed, ignored or trivialized these realities in his paper of 1991, and cited wild guesses about volcanic emissions from the 70s and 80s. Read the qualifiers, doubts, and cautions in his conclusions ( DOI 10.1029/90EO10192). Gerlach’s paper in 2011 offered no new data, no new observations, just rehashed innuendo. Re: sea level rise, thermal expansion of water has been greatly under-estimated (Jurgen Kusche, Univ. of Bonn). Even inspecting the USGS interactive website for Earthquake Archives, from the period 1900 to 1920 there were 97 Richter 7+ earthquakes. For the two (2) decade period ending Jan. 1, 2016 there were 324 Richter 7+ earthquakes. Over a three-fold increase. The advances are even more dramatic at Richter 6+. Gerlach claims the advances in earthquakes are due to more sensitive seismographs. What ?? We need more sensitive seismographs to detect Richter 7+ ??? The science is NOT settled. AGU, get it together. Richard F. Cronin, BChE, MBA, P.E. The DuPont company didn’t keep me around for 31+ years for my good looks and sunny disposition.

    Reply
    • Terrence Gerlach

      I am the TM Gerlach responsible for the 1991 and 2011 Gerlach papers you cite, both concluding that anthropogenic CO2 emissions dwarf volcanic CO2 emissions. I disagree with your characterizations of the work and provide a link to the 2011 Eos paper and supporting information for those wishing to examine it for themselves: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2011EO240001/full
      I am not responsible for the claim “…advances in [the frequency of large] earthquakes are due to more sensitive seismographs”, which you attribute to me. As an investigator of the geochemistry of magmatic volatiles and volcanic gases throughout my career, I am surprised by this revelation. I have no record or recollection of making such a claim. Please provide the source of this allegation. Thank you.

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  13. Ronald Green

    GW is a political not a scientific mind-set. People should be free to hold differing political views, and not force, of have to put up with other trying to force their political views on others.

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  14. Robert Geller

    This is an expanded version of my Tweet: https://twitter.com/rjgeller/status/711098972908048384

    AGU should cut off relations with Exxon Mobil unless the follow conditions are met.
    (1) They absolutely agree to terminate all denialism funding, and disavow whatever past denialism funding they may have made.
    (2) Rather than an annual payment their funding should be a lump-sum one-time endowment-type payment, with both sides agreeing there will be no new funding for the next, say, 20 years. That way they can’t exert any pressure on AGU going forward.

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  15. Michael MacCracken

    March 19, 2016

    Dear Margaret,

    I am a signer of the letter to AGU regarding association with ExxonMobil, and would like to elaborate on what I think needs to be a key consideration in AGU’s evaluation. In your first response to the letter, the issue for AGU was posed as regarding what the present positions and activities of ExxonMobil are and not about their past positions, much less regarding their past actions and the ongoing effects of their past positions. That seems to me far too narrow a basis for consideration—the delays in addressing the issue that resulted from ExxonMobil’s past activities and statements have allowed the situation to become much worse than had they appropriately dealt with the scientific findisngs and have forced the need for a very significant international response that, even if it can be accomplished, may well be too slow to be effective in suitably limiting environmental impacts and societal disruption to levels agreed to in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (as just one statement of international objectives). Had the leadership of ExxonMobil paid attention to what their own scientists were finding in the 1970s and 1980s, much less what the scientific community was finding, efforts to limit and then reduce emissions could have started a couple of decades earlier and so been more readily undertaken by the international community.

    While ExxonMobil’s current leadership has somewhat changed their position (although they still envision a world that will be using fossil fuels for far longer than is likely to meet the international commitment stated in the UNFCCC and other subsequent international agreements), there has not really been any “mea culpa” for their past positions nor any acknowledgment or responsibility taken for the predicament that their past positions have imposed and will continue to impose on the international community. I can think of a numerous other situations, from personal to corporate to international, where there has been a requirement for not only an open acceptance of responsibility for past actions, but also affirmative (and even also punitive) actions being taken to remedy the consequences of an entity’s actions—indeed, I cannot think of situations where significant and ongoing harm has been done and actions are not required to work to remedy or ameliorate the situation.

    I signed the letter because I am unable to condone the notion that AGU would just forget or forgive the actions of ExxonMobil in the past in a way that ignores the need for ExxonMobil to affirmatively accept responsibility the consequences in terms of undermining public and political acceptance of the international scientific consensus and their role in delaying quite feasible actions to limit emissions and thus slow the pace of change and ease the transition to an energy system that would not doom the planet to long-term and very significant changes in the climate, sea level, and ocean acidification. ExxonMobil is centrally a company that depends on scientific knowledge encompassed in many components of AGU and so I understand that an association has the potential to be mutually beneficial. However, for that to be justified, it seems to me that what is essential is for AGU to be instrumental in helping ExxonMobil come to understand that it must do much more than simply not object to the science and even more than just say that it favors a carbon tax. Indeed, it seems to me that, with AGU’s encouragement and perhaps assistance, ExxonMobil has to take on responsibility for becoming a very active leader in reversing the stalemated policy situation that they have very actively contributed to, and to do so both through actions they can take directly and actions that they must encourage be taken by others (e.g., Are they lobbying hard for a carbon tax or equivalent? Are they a leader in moving to switching to biofuels and other forms of energy? Are they actively working to get the world on an emissions trajectory consistent with an increase in global average temperature of 2 C or less? Are they leading the business community in figuring out how to help those living on coastlines deal with long-term sea level rise? And more?).

    It seems to me that AGU doing anything less than facilitating ExxonMobil’s efforts to proactively take on reversing the results of the costs and implications of what their actions have caused in the past would be, in a much less serious example, suggesting that a company that had caused a serious toxic waste situation has no responsibility once they had stopped an essentially irreversible pollution of a community’s only water resources. What I think AGU needs to be inquiring about is thus what ExxonMobil’s remedial efforts are for the damage caused, and indicating that, to be associated with AGU in a positive way, those remedial efforts need to be massive and demonstrated rather than simply claims that: some aspects of the science were uncertain (of course, some aspects are uncertain, but the fundamental points have been widely recognized for several decades); they are entitled to the right of free speech as an excuse; and an adequate response is to, at best, sit idly by in the effort to implement national and international policies that are sufficient to deal with the damage done already and projected for the future as a result of the delay that has been caused.

    Best regards, and personal congratulations on your leadership of AGU,

    Mike MacCracken

    P.S.: And, yes, as you likely recall from when you were at NSF, I do have some personal experience with ExxonMobil’s actions in this area (see http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2006/11/23/michael-maccrackens-2002-letter-to-the-exxonmobil-board-of-directors/). I do not think, however, that this interaction reduces the validity of the points made.

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    • Alan Robock

      Dear Margaret,

      I completely agree with Mike’s comments. How can we trust ExxonMobil based on their past actions? And they still intend to make lots of money selling fossil fuels and increasing global warming.

      I am writing to urge you to separate AGU completely from Exxon. When I was on the AGU Council, I introduced a resolution to change the ExxonMobil Student Breakfast back to the AGU Student Breakfast, which won, but not unanimously. The geologists had no problems with ExxonMobil, but as a climate scientist I had big problems. Before, they were proselytizing to our students, sending pretty young women to sit at the tables, trying to give the impression that men could meet women there and that women would have companions there. Exxon executives gave speeches. It was so bad that many students boycotted it, and after the change, students again came.

      AGU is a science organization. How can we take funds from a company that acts against climate science in order to make money. They purposely hid the science and paid charlatans to confuse the public about the science. They never apologized and have not given evidence that their basic attitude has changed.

      As you know Exxon has been very dishonest in the past about global warming. I see no change now, only window dressing, and it would be a valuable public statement by AGU in support of climate science, and action to solve global warming. I don’t know how much money Exxon gives to AGU each year, but we will be fine without their money.


      Alan Robock, Distinguished Professor
      Rutgers University
      Fellow, AGU
      Former President, Atmospheric Sciences Section, AGU

      Reply
  16. Tom O'Connor

    Expelling a group for heresy is not something a scientific organization should do.

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  17. A Perarnau

    Rejecting Exxon’s sponsorship because of science and ‘truth’ is a non-sense. Scientists are not truth seekers. Most of us are model users and the very few, the finest, are model makers. Newton’s model of gravity showed our solar system as clockwork. This was then shown inaccurate by Einstein and his model, as prodigious as it is, will eventually be superseded too. The best that can be shown in this particular case is that a company does not agree with the results of a model. That’s it. And I would add, model, or models, whose methods and results are still on discussion by the very experts that work on that field. How can you tell to the potential recipient of an AGU benefit, say a scholarship, that there are no funds because an sponsor was thrown out because… of its position about climate change? Absurd.
    I am not an employee of Exxon, I am not related nor acquainted, nor sympathetic in any way to that company (nor that they need my sympathy either). I just try to be a no non-sense scientist, or person. This rejection proposal should be dropped. Now.

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  18. Nathan Phillips

    Thank you Dr. Leinen and AGU leadership for your serious consideration of this issue. Exxon Mobil and Chevron are current members of the Western States Petroleum Association, which this month continued its fight against climate action policy by derailing the South Coast Air Quality Management District clean air plan and orchestrating a more pollution friendly board.
    The LA basin has some of the most polluted air in the nation concentrated on low income communities of color. The AGU must recognize that continuing to give social license to Exxon Mobil by accepting its funding will make it complicit in ongoing climate and environmental injustice.
    http://www.latimes.com/business/hiltzik/la-fi-hiltzik-20160311-column.html

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  19. Martin Manning

    This is to support Mike MacCracken’s points. As a member of the IPCC management bureau for the third assessment, I saw the letter that a senior executive in Exxon wrote to the White House and which led to the US then withdrawing their support from our chairman Bob Watson. Bob had been by far the most productive leader of IPCC but is so far the only one to have had just one term of office. So the issue is not about a need for science to remain impartial, it is about clearly separating the science from both denial and manipulation at the policy level.

    For Exxon-Mobil to regain any credibility it would require a dramatic reversal of their position, such as re-allocating all of their current profits so that these became subsidies that accelerated the uptake of current forms of renewable energy.

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  20. David Lumley

    XOM funds a wide array of fundamental and applied research, as do many industry companies. For example, they published some of the very early research results on paleo-climates. They are also a valid for-profit business that produces and sells energy to the world that (almost) all of us currently need to survive. As part of their diverse research portfolio, if XOM wants to donate unrestricted funds to support AGU students and researchers, without any strings attached, that would seem to be a positive development. It would be better to have the energy companies be part of the solution rather than the alternative…

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  21. Leonard Sklar

    Dear Margaret,

    I have been a member of AGU since 1994.
    Thank you for soliciting input from members regarding the relationship between AGU and ExxonMobil.
    Please count me among those who are 100% opposed to AGU accepting any money from any entity that has also financed anti-science misinformation. If the current leadership at ExxonMobil is sincere that they have changed, then let them invest the funds in question in a public information campaign to undo the damage they have done. Let them start by admitting that they lied, and that they funded others to lie. Then they should tell the full story of how they suppressed the work of their own scientists, and produce an audit of all their past efforts to deceive the public. That would be a start.
    In the meantime, AGU should not being taking their money.
    Please do the right thing and sever this relationship.

    Leonard Sklar
    Professor
    Dept. of Earth & Climate Sciences
    San Francisco State University

    Reply
  22. Timothy Cowles

    Dear Margaret,
    I appreciate the opportunity to comment on this issue. My thoughts align closely with those who have stressed the critical need for AGU, in its statements, programs, and partnerships, to advocate for, and support, the integrity of the scientific process. The willful contravention of scientific integrity by Exxon Mobil is therefore inconsistent with the core values of the AGU. The ‘new’ public stance of Exxon Mobil does not absolve it from the responsibility to admit to decades of deceit and to demonstrate scientific integrity in its corporate approach. AGU should sever its current connection to Exxon Mobil, with an option to revisit a future partnership pending an evaluation of corporate behavior several years from now.

    Sincerely,
    Tim Cowles
    Professor Emeritus
    Oregon State University

    Reply
    • Chris Measures

      I completely agree with Tim’s, statement. This is about integrity. AGU should not sacrifice its well earned reputation for scientific integrity on the altar of financial gain.

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  23. Miranda Menzies

    AGU’s position on climate change is clear. ExxonMobil is a business, and their view is different. I think it is hypocritical that AGU would accept funding from them. Thus, I agree with the suggestion that AGU decline funding from this point forward. That said, if the funding enable AGU to engage better with them, and increases the likelihood of them listening to us, then I can see an argument for continuing. It is UNACCEPTABLE that we would allow them to present scientific misinformation to students. If this is an “implied condition” of the funding, AGU should decline.

    Reply

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