The Case of ExxonMobil and the American Geophysical Union

Despite decades of deception on the climate risks of fossil fuel extraction, ExxonMobil for years sponsored the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, one of the nation’s most prominent scientific associations.

For years, ExxonMobil has been a sponsor of the American Geophysical Union’s (AGU) annual meeting, the largest annual convening of earth and space scientists in the world. The company’s donations for this meeting totaled over $620,000 from 2001 to 2015. In 2015, Exxon paid $35,000 to sponsor a student breakfast at the conference. Even though these funds only represent a small percentage of AGU’s budget, the sponsorship allows the company to recruit future employees under a veneer of scientific credibility, despite having spent over 40 years deceiving the public about the risks of fossil fuel extraction on our climate.

AGU’s long-time relationship with Exxon stands in opposition to its own Organizational Support Policy, which states 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." Thus, in 2016, over 50,000 people signed multiple petitions urging AGU to cut ties with Exxon and two members of Congress. An open letter from over 100 AGU member scientists appealed to AGU’s president: “by allowing Exxon to appropriate AGU’s institutional social license to help legitimize the company’s climate misinformation, AGU is undermining its stated values as well as the work of many of its own members.”

In April 2016, after consideration with its board of directors, AGU decided that it would not cut ties with ExxonMobil. AGU President Margaret Leinen wrote, “it is not possible for us to determine unequivocally whether ExxonMobil is participating in misinformation about science currently, either directly or indirectly, and…AGU’s acceptance of sponsorship of the 2015 Student Breakfast does not constitute a threat to AGU’s reputation.” In response, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Ted Lieu sent a letter to AGU reiterating the points made by AGU membership about ExxonMobil’s clear disrespect for established science and the impact a continued relationship would have on the Union.

A report written by AGU members detailed ExxonMobil’s disinformation campaign, writing that the company “continues to generate its own misinformative comments, fund groups that promote climate science misinformation, and financially support more than 100 climate-denying members of Congress…despite stating publicly in 2008 that it would no longer support climate science misinformation, ExxonMobil has continued to make public statements disparaging the validity of climate science and to financially support others who do the same.”

Following the year-long campaign, ExxonMobil was notably absent from the AGU sponsor list for its 2016 fall meeting for the first time in 15 years. However, AGU continues to accept sponsorship from other fossil fuel companies, like Chevron, that have also been responsible for deceiving the public regarding climate change science.

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