American Geophysical Union Again Agrees to Continue Accepting Exxon Money

For the second time AGU’s board has decided that accepting money from Exxon, which is under scrutiny over climate change, does not violate its mission.

For the second time in six months, the board of the American Geophysical Union has discussed whether accepting money from Exxon violates its mission and funding policies—and decided it does not. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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The American Geophysical Union announced Friday that it would continue to accept funding from ExxonMobil. The decision rejects the calls of some scientists, activists and others to refuse the company’s sponsorship money because they say the energy giant has helped spread doubt about climate change and stymied effective climate policies.

AGU’s board made its decision during its Sept. 14-15 meeting in Washington, D.C. This is the second time in six months that the board has discussed whether accepting money from Exxon violates its mission and funding policies—and decided it does not.

“AGU has always valued open dialogue and exchange of ideas, and we believe this decision best reflects AGU’s unique value to the scientific community: our ability to convene scientists of diverse views and from different backgrounds, disciplines, and industries,” AGU president Margaret Leinen and president-elect Eric Davidson wrote in a brief blog post announcing the decision.

Opponents of Exxon’s sponsorship, including AGU members, were quick to express their frustration with the decision. Within hours, hundreds of people had left negative comments on AGU’s blog and Facebook page.

“This is a disappointing, perplexing result for the hundreds of Earth scientists and 56,000 members of the public who have asked the AGU to stop accepting Exxon’s sponsorship,” wrote AGU member Britta Voss in an email to InsideClimate News. “As long as ExxonMobil continues to violate the AGU’s sponsorship policy…the issue of Exxon’s sponsorship of the leading society for Earth scientists will not go away.”

Voss, a postdoctoral geoscience researcher, was one of three AGU members who first raised the question of whether AGU’s accepting $35,000 from Exxon for a student breakfast conflicts with the organization’s mission and values.

Voss and others have pointed out that part of AGU’s mission is “to promote discovery in Earth and space science for the benefit of humanity,” and that AGU has a strong position statement on human-induced climate change and the urgency of the issue.

Exxon could not be reached for comment this weekend.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 56,000 people have signed multiple petitions calling on AGU to stop accepting funding from Exxon. Petition signatories include hundreds of AGU members and thousands of outside researchers and activists. (AGU has about 60,000 members.) The advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists sent a letter this month to AGU’s leaders urging them to cut ties with Exxon. Two members of Congress, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), sent a letter in May similarly urging AGU to reconsider its relationship with Exxon.

The recent AGU blog post offered few details about the board’s discussion. “The Board maintained its original decision after another careful and systematic review of hundreds of pages of both newly provided and previous documentation and a thoughtful and comprehensive discussion,” Leinen and Davidson wrote.

Prior to AGU’s first board meeting in April, Voss and her colleagues provided information that they contend showed Exxon had helped spread doubt about climate change and obstructed action on this issue. Exxon also provided evidence to be considered during that board conversation.

Following that meeting, Leinen wrote on the AGU blog: “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.”

Exxon’s current position on climate change, explained on its website, states: “The risk of climate change is clear and the risks warrant action. Increasing carbon emissions in the atmosphere are having an effect. There is broad scientific and policy consensus that action must be taken to further quantify and assess the risk.”

Exxon’s actions on climate have come under scrutiny in recent months. Attorneys general for New York and Massachusetts are investigating whether the company misrepresented to the public and its shareholders the risks climate change poses to its business. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is also looking into Exxon’s climate risk disclosures, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Beyond Exxon’s sponsorship of a student breakfast in 2015, InsideClimate News research found the company donated about $620,000 between 2001 and 2015 to the AGU. That amount represents just 0.1 percent of AGU’s total revenue during those years.

Some of that money was raised by two AGU members with Exxon ties: Carlos Dengo, a former company vice president and current AGU board member, and Exxon scientist Pinar Yilmaz. Dengo gave a brief statement at the first board meeting, but then recused himself from the vote. He again recused himself in the recent vote, according to AGU.

According to previous interviews with AGU members and officials, severing ties with Exxon is not a simple issue even though the sums are relatively small, in part because AGU and the company have been intertwined for at least four decades. Exxon has long recruited AGU scientists, and they share a common interest in better understanding Earth’s geoscience.

The energy company has sponsored the student breakfast at AGU’s annual conference since at least 2001, and it has funded travel grants for students to attend meetings. AGU’s annual meeting, held every December, is the world’s largest for earth and space scientists.

Leinen has previously said that instead of severing ties, the AGU board wants to engage the company on climate change moving forward.

Following AGU’s announcement, some activists have committed to continue pressuring AGU on this issue. “We feel resolve to continue on,” said Amanda Mourant of the environmental group, one of the activist groups that led a petition effort on this issue. “Their fall meeting in December, we definitely have a role to play there. We’ve marked our calendars for that.”