We were recently struck by a splashy new Exxon ad campaign designed to show off a surprising side of the oil and gas giant. The ads, which debuted during the Olympics, feature the smiling faces of Exxon scientists and engineers hard at work on algae-based biofuels, energy efficiency, and other tools to fight climate change.
As scientists ourselves, we are usually heartened to see the work of other scientists shared with the public. But while these Exxon employees surely do great research, the vast majority of the company's operations involve fossil fuel exploration and extraction -- at a time when science shows we must keep most of these fuels in the ground if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Exxon’s multi-million-dollar effort to wrap its public image in a lab coat is both telling and disturbing. Last year, journalists uncovered evidence that Exxon’s executives first received warnings about global warming -- from the company’s own scientists -- nearly four decades ago. Instead of acting on those warnings, Exxon chose to invest millions of dollars in funding climate change denial groups.
It’s time for the scientific community, including our professional organizations, to do our part to stop Exxon from painting itself as a champion of science, when they are anything but.
We proudly belong to the American Geophysical Union, the largest association of Earth scientists in the world. It counts many Exxon employees among its membership as well. The AGU accepts funding from Exxon, if with good enough intentions (e.g. to help support graduate student participation in the meeting), despite the oil company’s connection to front groups that attack climate scientists, malign well-established research, and downplay the risks of climate change. That’s why, earlier this year, we joined three hundred fellow earth scientists in asking AGU to cut financial ties with Exxon.
What unites the scientific community is the pursuit of truth. This value is codified by the AGU’s sponsorship policy, which bars the organization from accepting funds from organizations that promote or fund scientific misinformation.
But Exxon does promote and fund scientific misinformation. The company’s history of funding anti-science groups has been documented by academics, journalists, and even Exxon itself, in its charitable giving reports. One of us (M. Mann) has been at the receiving end of ExxonMobil-funded attacks on climate scientists. In 2006, Britain’s top scientific academy, the Royal Society, called on Exxon to stop funding climate disinformation. Despite a public pledge, Exxon continues to fail to do so.
Let us be crystal clear: Exxon continues funding climate denial to this day. It supports the National Black Chamber of Commerce (which calls global warming a “myth”), the American Enterprise Institute (which says the role of humans in climate change “is unresolved”), the American Legislative Exchange Council (which says climate change is an “inevitable...historical phenomenon”), and politicians who call the whole thing a “hoax”, to name a few. Our fellow scientists compiled all of this evidence for AGU’s board before it decided to continue accepting Exxon’s money.
Take the example of the benignly named American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), of which Exxon remains a key funder and voting member. ALEC is a lobby group that routinely misrepresents climate science to advance the agenda of its corporate members.
Instead of inviting credible experts to brief legislators, the Exxon-sponsored organization brings in political ideologues. At ALEC’s 2014 conference, a prominent climate change denier told legislators not to trust the international climate assessments to which we and our colleagues contribute. ALEC invited another denier, one who has frequently harassed climate researchers, to distribute inaccurate talking points about climate science to legislators.
The results of the disinformation campaign waged by Exxon and other fossil fuel companies have been infuriating and tragic. The U.S. has a larger percentage of people who do not accept the reality of human-caused climate change than any other country in the world.
Yet despite the many examples of Exxon’s complicity in climate disinformation, the AGU’s board has so far failed to enforce its own policy and decline Exxon’s money. Yes, some AGU members work in the fossil fuel industry. But taking a stand against scientific disinformation supports all scientists, wherever we may be employed.
It is long past time for scientists and scientific institutions to take a stand. The American Medical Association stopped running tobacco advertising in 1954 – ten years before the Surgeon General declared that smoking was a public health hazard. That’s what scientific leadership looks like.
Today, the AGU can show similar courage. Exxon’s contributions to the AGU of $620,000 from 2001-2015 make up just a tenth of one percent of the organization's operating budget, a drop in the bucket compared to the damage done to AGU by its association with Exxon. AGU’s choice is between abiding by its own rules and protecting its reputation on the one hand, and Exxon’s penny change for an annual breakfast on the other.
More than 50,000 citizen scientists and climate advocates from The Natural History Museum and ClimateTruth.org have joined us in urging the AGU to stop taking money from Exxon. Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats draw red lines in spending fight What Republicans should demand in exchange for raising the debt ceiling Climate hawks pressure Biden to replace Fed chair MORE (D-R.I.) and Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) have also echoed our request in their own letter to the organization. In response, the AGU agreed to take up the matter again at its upcoming board meeting on Sept. 14-15.
AGU’s board should seize this opportunity to act on its own policy against scientific misinformation, and in so doing, lead the way in defending the scientific integrity of our field.
And while we hope that Exxon will someday be at the forefront of a clean energy revolution as its ads imply, we are skeptical. One thing is clear: until Exxon stops bankrolling disinformation campaigns, its claims of climate leadership can never be more than greenwash. Scientific institutions have a responsibility to call Exxon’s activities what they are: lies. The stakes could not be higher - the future of the planet we study quite literally lies in the balance.
Michael E. Mann directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University and is co-author of “The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.” James J. McCarthy is Professor of Oceanography at Harvard University and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.