14 April 2016

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

Posted by Margaret Leinen

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 president@agu.org. 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 feedback@agu.org.

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.