The American Geophysical Union announced Thursday that it will continue to accept sponsorship money from ExxonMobil. The decision came after more than 100 AGU members and other scientists sent a letter to the organization's leadership in February urging the association to stop accepting money from the oil giant.
The letter noted that Exxon was under investigation by the New York and California attorneys general "for its long history of climate denial campaigns." Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands attorneys general have also launched investigations.
In a majority vote, AGU board members decided at a meeting last week that the organization would continue accepting money, if offered, from the oil company.
"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," AGU President Margaret Leinen said in a statement on Thursday.
Leinen said that in 2015 the organization accepted $35,000 from Exxon to sponsor a student breakfast at its fall meeting, the largest meeting of Earth and space scientists in the world, and said accepting it "does not constitute a threat to AGU's reputation."
When the scientists' letter calling for an end to Exxon sponsorship was first published on Feb. 22, 104 geoscientists had signed it, a mix of AGU members and nonmembers from across the globe. Since then, 150 additional scientists have signed.
The scientists' letter cites an eight-month InsideClimate News investigation of Exxon's climate research in the 1970s and its subsequent efforts to challenge the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet.
AGU published a climate-related position statement in August 2013 backing the scientific consensus, as well as declaring support for urgent action on the issue.
The organization states on its website that it "will not accept funding from organizational partners that promote and/or disseminate misinformation of science, or that fund organizations that publicly promote misinformation of science."
By letting Exxon sponsor a portion of its annual conference, the concerned scientists wrote in their February letter, "AGU is undermining its stated values as well as the work of its own members."
Following that letter's release, Leinen wrote in a blog post that the organization's board of directors would discuss the issue at their April meeting.
Prior to that meeting last week, some of the scientists that first raised the issue in the February letter compiled a report offering evidence that claims to show Exxon was spreading climate misinformation. The report was submitted in March, just as a new coalition of state attorney generals announced they were looking into fossil fuel companies' efforts to obscure the realities of climate change.
"We're extraordinarily disappointed, but this only reaffirms the importance of taking on the social license that Exxon has bought at respected scientific institutions like AGU," Britta Voss, a postdoctoral geoscience researcher who helped organize the scientists' letter, said in a statement. "What we really want to know is how they determined that, in their words 'it's not possible to determine' whether or not ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation. It seemed pretty clear to us, from the information that we were able to gather, that they are."
Voss said the AGU's statement Thursday raised even more questions. "What was the information that was provided by ExxonMobil? What is AGUs relationship with ExxonMobil beyond funding of the meetings? There are still a lot of questions that we hope to get answered," she said.
AGU said it considers all its correspondence as well votes cast by board members private and would not share it, said AGU spokeswoman Joan Buhrman. She also said the $35,000 was the only financial support AGU received from Exxon last year. The board's vote, however, may lead AGU to strengthen its ties with ExxonMobil and the oil and gas industry.
"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," Leinen said in her statement.
"AGU is committed to...exploring broadly and deeply the issues of energy, environment and climate change with the energy industry, our members and other stakeholders."
Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT, said AGU's decision "makes a mockery of its own bylaw that states that it will not accept funding from disseminators of disinformation.
"If it cannot turn down a mere $35K from a high-profile disinformer like Exxon," he said in a statement, "then it is hard to imagine it ever adhering to its bylaw. I am considering withdrawing from the AGU."
Former NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the most outspoken scientists in advocating for climate action, was similarly critical. "The fossil fuel industry is not making a serious effort to become an industry of clean energy, it is easier to fool the public," he said. "AGU pretends they do not understand the real issue. They are both hypocrites unwilling to be inconvenienced for the common good."
Comments on the AGU's website also quickly signaled a backlash. "I would not be surprised that within a few months a new American Geological Union will be founded that has no ties to the oil industry," one commenter wrote. "I will be hard pressed not to consider joining."
The board's decision seemed to have hinged on whether Exxon is currently funding climate disinformation efforts, said Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. Mann is a leading climate scientist and was one of the scientists who signed the letter in February.
"Unfortunately it is very difficult to establish this now because of the advent of dark money outfits which launder industry funding in a way that makes it very difficult to trace back to its original source," Mann said. "Current legal investigations that are underway may ultimately uncover evidence of whether or not ExxonMobil is continuing to fund attacks on climate science."
Mann said he presumes the AGU will reconsider its relationship with Exxon if new evidence emerges.
Voss agreed. "I don't think that this is necessarily going to be the end of the story for AGU," she said.