AGU Board Votes to Continue Relationship with ExxonMobil and to Accept Sponsorship Support


As you know from my previous messages, the question of AGU’s relationship with ExxonMobil (and our relationship with the larger oil and gas industry) has been a topic of great discussion for the last few months. When the most recent request to end ExxonMobil sponsorship and address questions about how our community should respond to the urgency of climate change was received in February, in the form of a letter signed by more than 170 AGU members and others in the climate science community, we treated it with the utmost concern and respect. The Board spent several hours over the course of our two-day meeting last week discussing the diversity of opinions amongst the membership of AGU, as well as the pros/cons of the various choices we might make, giving each equal importance and weight.

In my nearly 5 year tenure on the AGU Board, I can say that this was one of the most important and nuanced discussions* the Board has ever had. We knew that our decision would have implications for our members, our programs and our relationships with the many sectors and industries that comprise AGU’s broad membership. We knew that it could even result in the loss of members, as some individuals on both sides of the issue vowed to resign if our decision did not support their view. Given the importance of this decision, we proceeded carefully by reviewing more than 400 pages of background material** including a detailed report provided by the letter writers, every comment documented at our Council meeting and every communication sent to me by an individual member. We then conferred in a manner that allowed the range of opinions on the subject to be expressed and considered.

As with our members, board members presented various viewpoints and we thoroughly considered all of them. We had detailed discussions about whether ExxonMobil’s current actions are inconsistent with our organizational support policy in two areas: 1) promoting science misinformation and funding groups that are currently promoting misinformation about science, and 2) the potential impact of publicity about investigations into the company on AGU’s reputation. 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. We also discussed a multitude of options for moving forward, ranging from severing all ties with ExxonMobil, to maintaining our engagement with ExxonMobil but no longer accepting their sponsorship, to maintaining the relationship and sponsorship agreement, as well as developing new ways to strengthen our engagement and influence with the energy industry – and everything in-between.

In all of those discussions, we were careful to listen to each other closely and respectfully, even when we didn’t agree on a particular point. We did not take up our final votes until the Board affirmed that all viewpoints were heard and understood and that they were ready to make decisions.

In the end, by a majority vote, the board passed a motion that approved “continuing our current engagement between ExxonMobil and AGU including acceptance of funding from ExxonMobil.” (In 2015 that support consisted of a $35,000 sponsorship of the Student Breakfast at the Fall Meeting; based on current information, if we are offered support for 2016, we can accept it).

We were unanimous in our view that this issue has presented an opportunity and an obligation for us to exercise our convening role by bringing together those with diverse views across the science community to engage more directly with the private sector, and with ExxonMobil in particular. AGU is committed to creating an environment for dialogue about the roles of the science and business communities in all the sectors where science plays an essential role, and to exploring broadly and deeply the issues of energy, environment and climate change with the energy industry, our members and other stakeholders.

As always, I encourage you to share your thoughts and input on these decisions with us. You can do so by leaving a comment on this post, or by sending an email to [email protected]. In particular, I ask that you share your ideas about how we can more productively engage with the energy industry moving forward. We are already working on plans for an event/events to bring together the many views on these issues in a civil dialogue, but that cannot be the end of our engagement. Our intent is to develop a longer-term effort that draws on our ability as a scientific community to engage with the private sector to grapple with the challenging issues faced by society – including not just climate and energy issues but also scientific integrity.

In closing, I want you all to know that, whether you agree with the Board’s decisions or not, I personally thank you for your commitment to your science and your commitment to AGU. Even though it has been difficult at times, seeing you speak out, passionately and thoughtfully, about an issue like this has made me incredibly proud of our community and honored to serve as your president. Please don’t limit that passion and action to just this one issue. AGU is your organization, and when you engage with it like you have these last few months, you make it a better place for science.

Because we know that you may have questions regarding the Board’s decision and the path we have chosen for moving forward, we have scheduled two times next week for interested AGU members to call in and share their thoughts with Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee, President-elect Eric Davidson and me. The first call will be held on 20 April at 10 A.M. ET; the second will be held on 22 April at 3 P.M. ET. Space will be available on a first-come, first-served basis. To participate in one of these calls, please email your R.S.V.P. to [email protected].

See my previous posts on this topic: Exxon, AGU, and Corporate Support; and UPDATE: Exxon, AGU, and Corporate Support.

*Prior to any discussion on these issues, all Board members were asked to declare any potential conflicts of interest. Three individuals declared potential conflicts of interest – though it was noted that nearly every university represented in the room receives some degree of funding from ExxonMobil. One Board member volunteered to recuse himself from voting on the issue and that offer was accepted.

**Prior to the meeting, Board members reviewed a nearly-400-page packet of background materials that included copies of all correspondence AGU has received on the subject: the letters sent to us (and our responses); the more than 150 emails we received; the numerous tweets and blog comments that have come in over the last few months; a detailed report on ExxonMobil activities presented by the originators of the letter (in addition to the letter itself and other supporting materials); published news reports and peer-reviewed articles on ExxonMobil’s activities; statements about climate change from ExxonMobil’s website, a transcript from one of its shareholder meetings, and a letter that ExxonMobil sent to us; a report published by the Union of Concerned Scientists; and a report on the feedback provided by the Council during their meeting in March.

There are 61 comments

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    • ulrich knittel

      yes indeed, that is my feeling too – and what is worse is that the news spreads (e.g. in German broadcasts on science)

  1. Ernest Hilsenrath

    From above post from Margaret Leinen
    “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”

    From ExxonMobile’s website
    “ is in the interest of every government to increase access to reliable and affordable supplies for its citizens. That is why consumers should be concerned with policies that could have an adverse impact on energy production”

    ExxonMobile institutionalizes discouraging development of alternative and sustainable energy sources.

  2. Liviu Giosan

    I think this is a mistake. AGU will loose heavy-weight members and even more importantly, credibility…I would not be surprised that within a few months a new American Geological Union will founded that has not ties to the oil industry. I will be hard pressed not to consider joining …

  3. Patricia Maurice

    According to AGU’s own web page and statement on climate change, “Human activities are changing Earth’s climate. At the global level, atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases have increased sharply since the Industrial Revolution. Fossil fuel burning dominates this increase.” If this is the belief of the AGU, then the union needs to divest from all components of the fossil fuel industry–not just EXXON. Otherwise, it is sending a mixed message to the American public and the world at large. Following Dr. Leinen’s letter, it seems that the AGU is only interested in climate change as a means to garner research funding but is not willing to make any sacrifices needed to actually solve this urgent problem. It seems that scientists are saying, “Give us lots of research funding because of the massive problems caused by burning of fossil fuels while we also accept lots of funding from the fossil fuel industry.” This causes a major credibility gap and seems disingenuous. This sort of inconsistent behavior is one part of the reason why the American public does not trust the scientific community. If we’re not willing to make sacrifices (not accepting funding for things like breakfasts), why should the public? I will not be renewing my AGU membership.

    • Charles Greene

      Judith Curry’s comments demonstrate how ill informed she is about the issues being discussed. The argument against taking support from Exxon has nothing to do with the fact that it is a fossil fuel company. Rather, Exxon is in this position because it knowingly covered up its own scientific findings and misled the public as well as its shareholders about the risks of climate change for decades. That is why the company is under criminal investigation in the states of New York, Massachusetts, and California for securities and exchange violations and racketeering.

  4. Robertg Brulle

    Are you going to make public all of the documents reviewed, including the letter and any emails from ExxonMobil? Your statement that you cannot determine if ExxonMobil engages in climate misinformation is not supported by the peer reviewed literature. This information needs to be posted.

  5. Andrew McDonnell

    Dear President Leinen, Thank you for considering our request, but this is a very disappointing and weakly supported decision. How will AGU be using its power to ensure a sustainable future, as stated in the “About AGU” section at the bottom of this page? There is a major conflict here between what AGU proclaims to do and how it actually operates.

  6. Peter deMenocal

    I can appreciate this was challenging, but we missed an important opportunity to assert our values and affirm our integrity. Now, we look weak and compromised when we should have been strong and principled. Even with this vote, there was ample room to affirm these values, reject any meddling in basic science that thwarts truth, and take the high road. Instead, we read that a “Student Breakfast does not constitute a threat to AGU’s reputation”. Recall our AGU core value: “Excellence and integrity in everything we do” – we missed the mark.

    • Good God

      This is why the public does not trust scientists on climate change. Your report lists numerous statements which are either debatable or are (from this scientists perspective) likely false (there is a pretty strong consensus climate change is at least 50% driven due to human causes) but still not facts. The idea that you’re espousing that climate scientists and models as well as the conclusions drawn from those models by the most leftist members of academia should be treated as unimpeachable fact is a disgrace to science and counterproductive to our efforts. We need to stop being led around by those who espouse environmentalism as a religion – admitting to uncertainty in models is no fault and can help inform better policy and convince those who otherwise won’t trust you when you sanctimoniously claim no other projected temperature increase is likely. You’re the Ted Cruz of the left and are a disgrace to science.

  7. Tom Gross

    A very disappointing decision for the AGU. The letter makes points about how the board was not convinced by arguments against the endorsement of EXXON, but I saw no rational given for why AGU should want that endorsement. Except for meager support of a Student Breakfast. Clarification from the board on why they want to maintain ties with EXXON should be given.
    AGUs convening role is not to connect corporate and national entities. It is to serve the membership, the individual scientists who need support for their independent research. Anything that erodes the freedom of expression of the individuals should be eschewed.

  8. Hugh Hudson

    My letter in reply. Check out as suggested above.

    “Dear Margaret

    I am really disappointed in the decision you’ve just reported. A statement like “…it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly.” flies in the face of their well-documented support of ALEC. It may be that their input (“a letter that ExxonMobil sent to us”) repudiates that, but there’s not much transparency here and it’s highly unlikely, I think.

    It appears that the AGU thinks that a possible $35,000 in 2016 is worth sacrificing very important principles. That at least is how your bland and bureaucratic message reads. Is there more to it than this? I’d be happy to increase the registration fee by $1.25 to compensate for the sake of the Breakfast, if that’s all there is to it.


    Hugh Hudson (member since 1964)”

  9. Gunnar Schade

    I think Nathan Phillips summed this up nicely.
    The conclusion “that it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly” clearly appears as a cop-out. Of course, the company does not engage any more in public, direct funding of misinformation, but concluding that such ought to be unequivocally demonstrated is turning the argument on its head. I have no quarrel with AGU “engaging” with companies like ExxonMobil. In fact, AGU is in an excellent position to highlight the ethical quagmire Exxon and others are in. But since they (and other fossil fuel companies) made clear through their historic actions to this day, and make clear through their public webpage, that their goal is to keep making profit off (burning) fossil fuels, that they will lobby toward fossil fuel usage, and that they expect that fossil fuels will be used for a long time, it is clear to me that they worked and will work hard against the strong recommendation of the scientific community to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as rapidly and quantitatively as would be necessary to keep the planet warming beyond 2 degrees C since pre-industrial. And as such, AGU should have no business deals with them, since it is clearly ethically questionable to accept funds from an entity that demonstrably works against ones own publicly stated views and goals, even if only a subset. I thank the board members with the spine to recognize this.

  10. Max Broad

    I’m saddened to hear this decision. This is a Faustian Bargain for AGU; it seems as though AGU is willing to not only sell its credibility in exchange for Exxon funding, but sell-out a safe climate future as well.

  11. Alberto Patiño Douce

    I just resigned from AGU after being a member for 30 years. Copy of my resignation letter:

    Dear President Leinen,

    I ask that my membership in AGU (number 000173429I) be terminated immediately, in strong protest against the Board’s decision to put money above science. I teach my students that science and politics should never mix with each other. I teach them that, as scientists, we should stick exclusively to the science, and that the science of climate change and its human causes is settled. I also tell them that it is our duty as scientists to educate the lay public about the dangers of business interests propagating misinformation (AKA lies) about our science. Regrettably, with their action the Board has demonstrated that AGU is no longer a scientific organization. A few years ago I reached this decision about the Geological Society of America, when they refused to accompany AGU and other scientific organizations in their Congressional testimony about the science of climate change. At that time I decided that I did not belong to GSA any longer and left. I now see that I do not belong to AGU either. Please terminate my 30 year membership immediately.


    Alberto Patiño Douce
    University of Georgia

  12. Stephen Hansen

    If it’s not the money,why bother– and look so compromised in the bargain?
    If it is the $35,000, just say so, and I’ll raise donations to cover that. Cheers.

  13. Greg Rau

    Finding ExxonMobil not guilty is one thing, but at least show us the evidence that the board considered that counters the voluminous documents to the contrary, most recently here:
    and here:

    AGU’s reputation is on the line here along with ExxonMobil’s, not to mention the fate of the planet. Union members have contributed significantly to understanding this fate while being actively countered from certain, well-funded quarters with “shadows of doubt” and in some cases outright harassment. That ExxonMobil contributed to this activity would seem beyond question given the evidence, so show us arguments that exonerate them.

  14. Nathan Phillips

    Its interesting to hear scientists refer to what’s “not possible”. Its very rarely used, reserved for exceeding the speed of light, or violating the second law of thermodynamics. Here, the board uses that word to suggest a sense of finality to its ‘decision’, because of the supposed impossibility to gain the information needed to make a judgment. Does the board assert that this impossibility is immutable and for all time? Its a transparently weak attempt to put an issue to rest that is not going away. It raises even more questions, for example what is meant by “an opportunity…to engage more directly” with Exxon, and to “explore… more deeply” with industry – an ironic choice of words.

  15. Nancy McGuire

    I am cautiously optimistic about this decision. I’ve grown sick and tired of the daily deluge of emails and social media postings that demand an extreme response to one issue or another. “Cut all ties with [fill in the blank]!” “Tell the President to put an immediate end to [fill in the blank]!” How is AGU going to maintain any credibility as a source of scientific information if it draws the battle lines and starts lobbing word grenades at the “enemy”? According to this letter, the board looked at a mountain of background materials, listened to a whole range of community input, carefully deliberated, and came to a decision. Just like real scientists! The fact that they didn’t come to some neatly packages, pre-ordained conclusion — wow! Just like real science! Look, the fact is that instantly pulling the plug on petroleum would be catastrophic, so we need to bring ALL parties to the table and diligently work on getting sustainable energy resources up and running ASAP. Drawing the battle lines and lobbing word grenades at each other is a waste of time and resources. Fair disclosure: I’m a freelance writer, and AGU is one of my clients. I’m also an AGU member.

    • Stephen Hansen

      Nancy McG’s silly straw man,slippery slopes, and false dichotomies made no sense until she admitted that she writes for AGU!! Stopping $35,000 a year from Exxon, say, until they are exonerated of their pending lawsuits in NY and Calif. (Not telling and lying to shareholders and others about what their own conclusions were about AGW’s horrific realities!!) seems a mild measure. Maybe AGU needs more (insert adjective here) writers.

    • Mark Chopping

      Nancy, Engagement with fossil fuel companies was tried for decades and did not produce any meaningful change. If only it had, we could perhaps accept this decision as reasonable. Corporations have obligations only to shareholders — but AGU has obligations to its membership and to civilization. Best, Mark

  16. Dorian Weisel

    With so many members tongue tied behind the inability to speak out imposed upon them by their employers one would have thought here was an opportunity to represent the concerns of the membership in a meaningful way.

    Had there been no discussion that would have been one thing, but to have considered this issue and conclude the way the board has suggests a belief that the path forward is through dialog rather that drawing lines and taking sides. Unfortunately ExxonMobil has a long history of deceit that one is unable to believe will change with dialog. The only reasonable answer at this time is complete divestment from fossil fuel, and AGU as the representative of the scientific community has shown that it (apparently) doesn’t have the will of it’s membership at heart. It is my believe that it is incumbent upon the board to reconsider this decision.

    I believe we are at a critical point in the fight, and it is a fight, for the survival of our eco-system and the luxury of our abundant, and in many ways opulent, lives. While the youth that are now becoming aware of the daunting task their elders have left them are screaming on many many campuses for their institutions to divest from fossil fuel economies here is the one opportunity for sane, rational, true leaders (and yes I consider the members of AGU leaders) of the first world to make it clear that we are standing on the threshold of either an incredible nightmare or the dawning of an era of the most wonderful time on Earth, and the one thing it all pivots upon is whether or not we maintain a healthy environment. For AGU to not make it plainly clear that if there is even a hint of impropriety there is no grounds to negotiate, no way we can accept even the slightest misstep at this critical moment in man’s evolution on Earth, is beyond shameful.

    This is the equivalent of Apartheid, and whereas the whole world agreed to divest from South Africa until they treated their citizens as humans, the AGU board has elected to continue support for the oppressing regime. To remain cuddled up sweetly with those that would enslave the environment and lie to its citizens, to challenge life on Earth itself for a profit, is the greatest sin of them all. It saddens me to no end to say I believe the AGU Board has brought great shame to all of its members, and beyond them to the entire thinking rational world.

  17. Charles Greene

    “At what level does the behavior of a corporate sponsor become sufficiently reprehensible for AGU to refuse its support? I guess that a corporation like ExxonMobil, which has deceived the general public for decades while placing human society at great risk, has not achieved that level. The only conclusion to be drawn is that AGU will accept money from just about any corporate entity, no matter how unethical its behavior. I certainly will not attend an ExxonMobil-sponsored AGU Meeting, and I hope that every other member who feels the same way about this lapse in judgement will consider sending a similar message.”

  18. Judith Shapiro

    I am not a member of the AGU. I just became aware of this decision, and your rationale–by coincidence on the same day that the invesigative journalists who exposed Exxon’s decades-long campaign of misinformation were named Pulitzer Prize finalists in the category of Public Service.

    The articles cited in the Pulitzer decision, appearing between September and December 2015, quote top Exxon officials “to this day” attempting to distort and cast doubt on the science of climate change, as here: “At Exxon’s annual meeting in 2015, (Chairman Rex) Tillerson said it would be best to wait for more solid science before acting on climate change. ‘What if everything we do, it turns out our models are lousy, and we don’t get the effects we predict?’ he asked.”

    It is hard to understand how the AGU can state with any sincerity that it is not possible to determine whether Exxon is still, currently participating in misinformation about science (leaving aside the logic of choosing this as the criterion for whether a continuing relationship will jeopardize your reputation): it seems you either didn’t try very hard, you are playing games with semantics, or your board is stacked with people who contest the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

    I’ve read the AGU’s guiding principles and statement on ethics; I agree in particular that we all would benefit from “a credible voice for the power of Earth and space science to inform policy, transform our understanding of the world, and… build trust between the scientific community, the public and policy makers,” and that “We do that holding ourselves to the highest standards of scientific integrity and ethical conduct as individuals and as a professional society.” Sadly, I’m afraid you’ve blown it; minimizing Exxon’s lengthy, effective and now well-documented suppression and manipulation of science to deflect public policy for the company’s financial benefit, causing great harm to the public at large, does not make you that credible voice.

  19. Karin Kirk

    AGU, seriously? I am so disappointed in this utterly weak decision. So let me get this straight: we spend our professional careers dedicated to educating students, teachers, and the public about climate change. We lie awake at night thinking of way to make the content more clear, more compelling, and to reach the broadest possible audience. We use creative methods to present the science in all kinds of different and interesting ways. We measure the effects of all these efforts. We present findings at AGU, we discuss all of this work with this wonderful community. In short, we dedicate our lives to this.

    And in return, you ignore the wishes of your membership, disregard the 400 pages of evidence you were presented, and you side with Exxon. Good grief. Exxon’s completely clear track record on climate misinformation has been irrevocably damaging to our science, our educational process, and our planet. I can’t believe you let that slide under the guise of, “it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently.” That is total baloney. Why do you need proof of current misinformation? Does their long history of past misdeeds seem somehow OK? And of course you can’t find unequivocal evidence, because Exxon hides this paper trail (which is now getting uncovered by various Attorneys General, but you must have missed that?). And you fell for it. Shame on you.

    So now AGU is getting praised by climate denier groups. That alone should tell you about the humiliating ramifications of this decision.

    I hope you will reconsider. I’m glad to see this backlash, which is richly deserved. I will not be renewing my membership.

  20. Mark Chopping

    I cannot find the words adequately to describe how disappointed I am to read of this decision and the wholly inadequate rationalization provided for it. I apologize for this inability, noting that others have articulated with much greater skill why we feel this way. How can AGU purport to be committed to be supportive of science when it cannot adhere to the most basic tenets of integrity? What are we supposed to tell our students, “Sure, take the tobacco money”? This was a test many of us assumed would be resolved easily after a cursory examination of recent history. I am saddened that the leadership and Board have failed both the Union membership and the wider society it informs. We can only hope that the newly renovated offices are sufficiently comfortable to ease any nagging scruples.

  21. Bill Bour

    “The glass prow AGU’s headquarters was designed to represent a beacon of leadership for the Earth and space sciences.”

    That beacon, in my opinion, has been dimmed by this decision.

  22. Stephen Hansen

    For years,we have gotten our local state & national candidates to agree to never take tobacco cartel money–both sides of the aisle do this — and now they also agree to not take fossil fuel money!! I hope this AGU debacle doesn’t give them an excuse to back out—

  23. Jiakang Xie

    Guess what, in other science communities they already talking about AGU’s decision as a bad example of professional societies taking payment from one of the most environmental unfriendly companies. It is like a medical society forming alliance with a drug company known to overcharge patients, or worse. This is one of the worst decision by AGU leadership, and I suspect there are more to come.

  24. Terrence Gerlach

    ExxonMobil’s financial support of ALEC in recent years is a grave and telling act. ALEC commonly spreads climate science and environmental science misinformation. Moreover, ALEC is dedicated to introducing climate science misinformation into student classrooms under the pretense of ‘fairness’.
    It is normal behavior for corporations to compartmentalize their activities. ExxonMobil uses its wealth to support organizations like ALEC to spread climate science misinformation, in hopes of obstructing the transition to clean energy, while simultaneously supporting science organizations like AGU and a public website ostensibly compatible with consensus climate science and the goal of cleaner energy, in hopes of buying goodwill. This type of behavior is unlikely to change unless ExxonMobil is challenged.
    The AGU Board’s decision reaffirms ExxonMobil’s partnership with AGU and reinforces ExxonMobil’s corporate behavior. AGU retains its $36,000 of annual support, but it also retains a sponsor whose corporate behavior will likely continue to be abhorrent to many of its members. The Board has made a bad decision.
    (AGU member)

  25. Nathan Phillips

    How does this statement necessitate accepting money? Does constructive engagement require a payment?

    “We were unanimous in our view that this issue has presented an opportunity and an obligation for us to exercise our convening role by bringing together those with diverse views across the science community to engage more directly with the private sector, and with ExxonMobil in particular. AGU is committed to creating an environment for dialogue about the roles of the science and business communities in all the sectors where science plays an essential role, and to exploring broadly and deeply the issues of energy, environment and climate change with the energy industry, our members and other stakeholders.”

  26. ulrich knittel

    Today, a German radio in its series of broadcasts on science reported on this case. The conclusion drawn is that the standing of AGU has been damaged seriously by the decision to accept donations from Exxon in the future. As an “old” member (since 1987) I deeply regret to see “my” society fall into miscredit. If money always wins I need to consider to leave AGU. 🙁

  27. Nathan Phillips

    “[Leaders of the AGU]…eschew[ed] exploration geophysics, whose advocates sought to apply geophysical techniques to the discovery of petroleum deposits…”
    – p. 30, in Doel, Ronald E. (2012). “American Geophysical Union”. In Rothenberg, Marc. History of Science in the United States. Routledge. ISBN 9781135583187. (encyclopedia entry citing Fleming JA. 1954. Origin and Development of the AGU. Trans AGU 35. 1:1-46; and Gillmor C. Stewart, ed., History of Geophysics, 4 Vols., Washington DC: AGU 1984-90.)

  28. George Devries Klein

    Why do members of scientific societies believe their organization must take a stand an any and all no-scientific political and social issues of our time?

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