American Geophysical Union Sells Its Scientific Integrity For $35,000 In ExxonMobil Money

CREDIT: BRENT CLINGMAN, AP
CREDIT: BRENT CLINGMAN, AP

Apparently you can buy the scientific integrity of the entire American Geophysical Union (AGU) for $35,000. Well, maybe you can’t, but oil giant ExxonMobil can.

In February, 100 AGU members and other earth and climate scientists wrote an open letter to the board of 62,000-member group urging it to stop taking sponsorship money form ExxonMobil. The scientists urged the AGU to live up to its 2015 board-approved policy that says AGU will only partner with (i.e. take more than $5,000 from) organizations that meet “the highest standards of scientific integrity, that do not harm AGU’s brand and reputation, and that share a vested interest in and commitment to advancing and communicating science and its power to ensure a sustainable future.”

If that doesn’t scream “NOT EXXONMOBIL” loud enough for you, the policy immediately continues:

“AGU 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.”

As a detailed report accompanying the scientists’ letter made clear, ExxonMobil continues to be one of the biggest promoters of climate science misinformation and one of the biggest opponents of all things sustainable on planet Earth — as it has for a half century now.

So of course you’d think the AGU Board would write the scientists back and explain that it had unanimously decided to immediately cease and desist taking any sponsorship money from the oil giant. Not quite.

On Thursday, the AGU board announced that — after reviewing the detailed report on ExxonMobil along with the peer-reviewed literature and other publicly available information — it wasn’t going to cut ties with Exxon. Here’s what the letter from AGU President Margaret Leinen says (emphasis in original):

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).

Everyone certainly deserves a free breakfast, especially students. And what a great way to introduce them to one of the central facts of the adult world — “money talks, values walk.”

Now you are probably wondering what logic the majority of the AGU Board used to defend its decision. With the customary warning that you should put on your head vises now to prevent cranial explosion, here goes:

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.

I am going to call this rationalization the “You can’t prove they didn’t stop yesterday” defense.

Apparently you can introduce all of the evidence in the world that ExxonMobil continues to be “participating in misinformation about science” — and to be clear there is a staggering amount of evidence (see here and here). But the AGU board will still claim that you can’t prove they didn’t stop yesterday — so they’re going to keep taking their money.

More Than 100 Scientists Ask Leading Science Association To Cut Ties With ExxonClimate by CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar More than a hundred scientists have sent a letter to the American…thinkprogress.orgAs you might imagine, this defense didn’t sit well with climate scientists and other experts. “This is an unfortunate decision, and a sad day for the integrity of the AGU,” as climate expert Robert Brulle told me. Brulle, a leading academic expert on how the climate disinformation campaign is funded, explained that the detailed report accompanying the letter “clearly shows that ExxonMobil continues to support the promulgation of climate misinformation. The AGU is engaging in willful blindness regarding a very clear cut pattern by ExxonMobil to sponsor climate misinformation and hinder action on climate change.”

MIT climatologist Kerry Emanuel, who signed the open letter, said the AGU “makes a mockery of its own bylaw that states that it will not accept funding from disseminators of disinformation.”

“If the AGU cannot turn down a mere $35K from a high-profile disinformer like Exxon, then it is hard to imagine it ever adhering to its bylaw. I am considering withdrawing from the AGU,” he added.

Exxon sold its soul decades ago, but at least it got trillions in revenue

Indeed, “mere $35k” recalls a line from the classic play, “A Man For All Seasons.” Sir Thomas More, after being convicted of treason thanks to the perjured testimony of Richard Rich, notices that Rich is wearing the medallion for his newly appointed position, Attorney-General for Wales, which he obviously received in return for lying under oath. More says bitingly, “It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales, Richard?”

The lies of ExxonMobil are unique in the annals of climate history for many reasons. Here are two. First, ExxonMobil (and its precursor companies, like Humble Oil) has known its product posed a serious threat to a livable climate for a half century — longer than perhaps any other major company in the world. And like any morally bankrupt mustache-twirling corporate villain, rather than warning the public, media, and policy-makers about this potentially catastrophic but quite preventable threat to all of humanity, ExxonMobil decided to become the biggest funder of disinformation on climate science energy (at least until Koch Industries dethroned them).

In 2015, the Pope explained at length in his encyclical that indifference to the dangers of climate inaction by the rich and powerful is immoral. He called it a sin. So what would the Pope say about a company that’s fostering lies in order to spread indifference among the public, the media, and policy-makers?

Second, under public and investor pressure, ExxonMobil appeared to promise it would stop funding groups that promote climate science denial almost a decade ago. As it wrote in its Orwellian-titled “2007 Corporate Citizenship Report:”

In 2008, we will discontinue contributions to several public policy research groups whose positions on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner.

Reading that, you would naturally think that Exxon had in fact stopped funding climate denial. And indeed, that is clearly what ExxonMobil wanted everyone to believe — and how the media reported it for years to come. Just last year, the Guardian wrote of the oil giant, “Under pressure from shareholders, [the] company promised eight years ago to stop funding climate denial — but financial and tax records tell a different story.”

ExxonMobil never, in fact, stopped funding “public policy research groups whose positions on climate change” were anti-scientific, as the Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace have repeatedly documented, most recently last year.

But then if you go back and read very closely what Exxon actually publicly committed to, you realize it never actually said it would stop funding all such groups. It just said they would “discontinue contributions to several public policy research groups.” Furthermore, it never even defined what “positions on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner” meant.

Exxon has used similar weasel words for years to make it seem like it stopped promoting climate science denial, though sometimes its senior leadership appears to slip up — as pointed out in a Huffington Post piece last fall.

I bring up Exxon’s weaselly use of words since the AGU, in deciding to stay in bed with them, has inevitably been corrupted into using its own weasel words.

In a new ClimateWire interview, AGU President Margaret Leinen repeats that the Board decided to keep taking Exxon’s money because “we do not have evidence that they are currently contributing misinformation.”

This “You can’t prove they didn’t stop yesterday” defense is not merely Orwellian, it puts the onus on the wrong party. Yes, we live in a world where people are innocent until proven guilty. And in theory corporations are people — albeit people without a soul, kind of like vampires. But I digress.

The thing is, ExxonMobil has been proven guilty again and again. It has not only spread lies for decades about one of the most consequential matters in human history — helping to delay action for decades, bringing us close to (if not past) crucial points of no return in the climate system — it has been lying for years about whether or not it stopped spreading those lies.

I would say to the AGU board and Leinen that the burden of proof is not on Exxon’s critics to provide evidence that the company is contributing misinformation (and working against a sustainable future) right this very second. The burden of proof is on Exxon to show that it is not still funding countless organization that spread lies on both climate science and clean energy. All recent ExxonMobil money should be returned — and all new funds refused — until Exxon can publicly document that it has stopped funding attacks on climate science and sustainability.

It profits AGU nothing to give its soul for the whole world … but for a $35k student breakfast, Margaret?