Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

leonkaye headshot

Scientists Pressure American Geophysical Union to Sever Ties with ExxonMobil

Words by Leon Kaye

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is almost 100 years old and has long been a leader when it comes to the organization and distribution of scientific research related to geophysics.

And like any trade or advocacy organization, the AGU has a huge conference that brings out the best and the brightest for events centered around the latest trends in the field. Last year’s AGU Fall Meeting, in fact, boasted over 24,000 attendees, and there is no reason to think that this December’s gathering in San Francisco will not be an even larger event.

One of this event’s -- and the AGU’s — sponsors over the years has been ExxonMobil. For an organization that holds several core values, including “the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge,” as well as “unselfish cooperation in research,” the AGU’s acceptance of checks from ExxonMobil would surely rankle some of the union's membership. Many AGU members and their research have been savaged by the oil giant’s allies in business and government.

America’s largest energy company, ExxonMobil leads the way when it comes to climate change denial, and has been quick to nix any such discussion amongst its shareholders. So, it is easy to understand why more than a few eyebrows would be raised over the relationship between these two organizations.

To that end, over 100 geoscientists sent a letter to the AGU’s president, Margaret Leinen, and asked that she and the governing board end ExxonMobil’s sponsorship of the organization -- and more just have signed on.

The letter outlines a long list of grievances: the company’s continued support of the lobbying group ALEC; the public criticism ExxonMobil’s CEO, Rex Tillerson, has lobbed against the validity of climate change models; and the energy giant’s impact on the debate over climate change policy within the U.S. Congress.

In response, the AGU promised to “carefully review the information” and consult with the organization’s stakeholders before its next board meeting. To its credit, the AGU welcomes comments as well as emails over the controversy. So far (and in fairness, this is a small sample size), the sentiment is tilted toward severing the relationship between the two organizations.

This is not the first time the AGU has had its relationship with ExxonMobil questioned: Last year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, long a vocal critic of ExxonMobil, submitted a letter that questioned the association and asked AGU to reconsider its acceptance of sponsorship money. At the time the AGU’s board claimed that, after conducting some research, it decided that ExxonMobil’s public statements and activities “were not inconsistent” with the organization’s positions and scientific consensus, and the union has continued to receive sponsorship money from the company.

Indeed, when perusing through AGU’s site, one would hardly assume that it has been adversely influenced by ExxonMobil’s public stance on climate change. Recent posts include how Dubai’s boom has affected the local climate, the slow disappearance of a glacier in Wyoming and copious other articles related to climate change. The AGU is far from a mouthpiece for the $269 billion oil and gas company.

Nevertheless, as the scientists’ letter outlines, the AGU’s policy states that “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.” Considering the massive ExxonMobil sign that greets attendees at the organization’s annual conference, that visual -- at the very least -- comes across as awkward.

Don’t expect this spat to die anytime soon. ExxonMobil and its allies are out in full force, alleging that some signatories of this letter have benefited from the company’s cash in the past as they conducted their own research. But of course, people can change their views and companies can change their policies. ExxonMobil may be winning this public-relations battle now, but market realities are showing that it's losing the long-term war. Despite the fracking boom here at home and the low prices of oil worldwide, renewables are booming in the U.S. while more corporations are investing in clean energy.

Image credit: SERC Media

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

Read more stories by Leon Kaye

More stories from Energy & Environment