by Judith Curry
. . . to assess whether our partner/sponsor statements are in conflict with our position statements and accepted scientific consensus. – Margaret Leinen, AGU President
Scientists to AGU: Drop Exxon sponsorship
The relevant information is compiled [here]. Excerpts:
Today more than 100 geoscientists sent the following letter to the President of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) – the world’s largest association of Earth scientists – urging the association to end its sponsorship deal with ExxonMobil. The oil giant is currently under investigation by the New York and California Attorneys General for its long history of climate denial campaigns.
Many notable scientists have signed on, including the former director of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies James E. Hansen, the former President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Harvard Professor James J. McCarthy, Harvard Professor and author of Merchants of Doubt Naomi Oreskes, and Michael Mann– Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
The letter is the most recent example of a growing trend of scientists stepping out of their traditional roles to urge science institutions to cut ties to fossil fuel companies.
Excerpts from the actual letter:
We, the undersigned members of AGU (and other concerned geoscientists), write to ask you to please reconsider ExxonMobil’s sponsorship of the AGU Fall Meetings.
As Earth scientists, we are deeply troubled by the well-documented complicity of ExxonMobil in climate denial and misinformation. For example, recent investigative journalism has shed light on the fact that Exxon, informed by their in-house scientists, has known about the devastating global warming effects of fossil fuel burning since the late 1970s, but spent the next decades funding misinformation campaigns to confuse the public, slander scientists, and sabotage science – the very science conducted by thousands of AGU members. Even today, Exxon continues to fund the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group that routinely misrepresents climate science to US state legislators and attempts to block pro-renewable energy policies. Just last year, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson downplayed the validity of climate models and the value of renewable energy policies.
The impacts of Exxon’s tactics have been devastating. Thanks in part to Exxon, the American public remains confused and polarized about climate change. And thanks in part to Exxon, climate science-denying members of Congress and lobby groups operating at the state level remain a major obstacle to US efforts to mitigate climate change.
But 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.
While we recognize that some of AGU’s scientific disciplines are deeply tied to the fossil fuel industry, we are also increasingly aware of the tension within our community regarding how we should respond to the urgency of climate change as individual scientists and as institutions. It is time to bring this tension into the light and determine how an organization such as AGU should approach the major challenges of today to ensure that we truly are working for the benefit of humanity. In particular, as the world’s largest organization of Earth scientists, if we do not take an active stand against climate misinformation now, when will we?
Further details from ClimateWire (as quoted by Marlo Lewis):
AGU’s meeting is the largest earth science conference in the world. It attracts tens of thousands of scientists and requires a conference space so large that it is used by Apple Inc. and Google Inc. for their yearly developer meetings. There are hundreds of sessions on the science of climate change. Exxon Mobil is a prominent sponsor and recruiter at the meeting and paid AGU $35,000 last year.
According to Climatewire, one of the signers–Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists–stressed that petitioners are not asking AGU to cancel the sponsorships of all oil and gas companies, just Exxon.
“AGU has set an unequivocal policy that restricts accepting funding from organizations that support or engage in misinformation on science,” he said. “That’s as it should be for any scientific society. We are just calling for AGU to implement the policy we already have.”
AGU President Margaret Leinen responds. Excerpts:
In the summer of 2015, AGU released its new organizational support policy. This policy was designed to help ensure that AGU’s relationships with the corporate sector are in keeping with our values of unselfish collaboration in research and the highest standards of scientific integrity. One of the core principles of that policy is that it mandates that any potential partner not be engaged in the public promotion of misinformation about science. Prior to approving a new partner, AGU checks publicly available sources of information, such as websites and corporate media releases and public statements, to assess whether our partner/sponsor statements are in conflict with our position statements and accepted scientific consensus.
Because we take such concerns seriously, the Board conducted its own research and discussed the issue at great length during the September 2015 meeting. At that time, we decided that ExxonMobil’s current public statements and activities were not inconsistent with AGU’s positions and the scientific consensus.
It cannot be said that Exxon’s past positions and actions regarding climate change were in keeping with our policy or with the company’s current public positions, and we will be monitoring the results of the investigations by the Attorneys General of New York and California into those past actions. Yet our research did not find any information that demonstrates that they are currently involved in such activities.
We recognize that companies can, and often do, modify their positions and actions on various issues over time. This can come about for a variety of reasons, and is something that should be encouraged. But, if a company is excluded from the community based on its past actions, in spite of corrections or improvements that have been made over time, what are the implications? Does the rejection – or the inclusion – of such a company in our scientific community best serve the continuation of the progress we seek? We believe that inclusion is the best option.
As the leaders of AGU, we welcome questions and requests from our members and others in the scientific community, and we assure you that if verifiable information becomes available that proves ExxonMobil is currently engaging in the promotion of misinformation about science or adopting positions that are in conflict with AGU’s own, or supporting groups that do, we will end the relationship, as dictated by our policy – at least until the company is able to demonstrate that such actions have ceased. We encourage our members to share with us any information about current activities that may contradict ExxonMobil’s public statements about their position and actions.
Margaret Leinen is to be congratulated for not capitulating to demands to sever ties with Exxon, and for stating:
Does the rejection – or the inclusion – of such a company in our scientific community best serve the continuation of the progress we seek? We believe that inclusion is the best option.
Unfortunately, however, she falls into the ‘consensus trap’, the trap of mistaking scientific debate and uncertainty for ‘misinformation’, and for thinking that the AGU’s policy statement on climate change is the last word (i.e. ‘settled’) on the subject of climate change.
The perils of position statements
Marlo Lewis has an article Exxon Bashing, the AGU, and the Folly of Position Papers. Excerpts:
Indeed, Leinem and the Exxon bashers tacitly agree that AGU’s role is not to facilitate debate of competing scientific viewpoints but to define and enforce a party line.
When scientists behave like partisan hacks in the name of science, they degrade both science and politics.
This phony brouhaha over Exxon’s alleged deviation from the AGU’s position statement should–but won’t–induce the AGU’s Board to question whether scientific associations have any business issuing consensus statements on matters of public controversy.
Economist Ross McKitrick nailed it years ago. Official statements by scientific societies “celebrate groupthink and conformity,” foster “partisanship” by demanding allegiance to a “party line,” and “legitimate the appeal to authority as a form of argumentation.” In other words, official statements breed habits of thought and action detrimental to scientific integrity and progress. The AGU sowed the seeds of the Exxon bashers’ intolerant quackery when it decided to behave like a political organization instead of a scientific association.
I have written several previous posts on the AGU Statement on Climate Change that was titled Human induced climate change requires urgent action:
Roger Pielke Sr, an AGU Fellow and member of the panel that prepared the AGU statement, penned a dissenting statement: Humanity Has A Significant Effect on Climate – The AGU Community Has The Responsibility To Accurately Communicate The Current Understanding Of What is Certain And What Remains Uncertain
My comments on the AGU statement were harshly critical:
Of the two statements, I vastly prefer Roger Pielke Sr’s statement, since he discusses the complexity of the issue and the uncertainties.
That said, I will once again question why AGU or any other professional society is issuing statements on this topic. IMO, AGU’s statement is one of the worst I’ve seen from a professional society on this topic, in particular its title ‘Human-induced climate change requires urgent action.’ This is an explicit statement of advocacy, that goes well beyond what the IPCC has said.
What really irks me about this statement is that I am a member of the AGU, and therefore this statement is implicitly speaking for me. It is clear that not even the 15 AGU members set to write this statement agreed, since one of their members (Pielke) has written a dissenting statement. The words ‘uncertainty’ or ‘debate’ are not used in the statement, leaving no wiggle room for them to pretend that this statement accounts for the range of perspectives in the AGU (or even within the writing committee), or the uncertainties.
If the AGU wants to maintain credibility as a scientific organization, it should do some serious self reflection.
The irresponsibility with which the AGU is proceeding with its advocacy has the potential to seriously harm not only AGU’s image and credibility, but also the science itself.
So, we have two AGU Fellows (myself and Pielke) strongly objecting to the AGU Statement on Climate Change. I know of a number of AGU Fellows that also object to the AGU statement on climate change.
I was originally worried about the position paper being used as a green light for AGU editors and reviewers to reject papers that challenge the ‘consensus’. I continue to worry about that. But now I see an unanticipated application of the AGU position statement: a litmus test for accepting or declining corporate sponsorship.
The ‘charges’ against Exxon are fairly ludicrous, as summarized by Marlo Lewis:
There is no way Exxon could have known about global warming’s ‘devastating’ effects in the late 1970s, because such effects are not evident even today.
Even more fundamentally, Exxon could not have known in the “late 1970s” that global warming was a crisis because the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) did not know even in the early ’90s that anthropogenic global warming was occurring.
The IPCC’s First Assessment Report (FAR), published in 1990, did not declare anthropogenic global warming to be a fact. Although the size of recent warming was “broadly consistent with predictions of climate models,” it was “also of the same magnitude as natural variability” (p. 6). Hence, “The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.”
Similarly, the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report (SAR), published in 1995, famously concluded the “balance of evidence . . .suggests a discernible human influence on global climate” (p. 22). That too is not an assertion of what is demonstrably true, only what the “balance of evidence” “suggests.”
There is genuine scientific disagreement about the relative importance of human caused climate change (versus natural variability) and the magnitude of climate sensitivity, not to mention how the 21st century climate will evolve (even if we know what the carbon emissions are). There is even greater disagreement over the following issues, for which science has little to contribute:
- whether human caused climate change is on net ‘dangerous’
- whether the near-term mitigation ‘cure’ is worse than the climate ‘disease’ in terms of damaging economies and increasing vulnerabilities, and unintended social and environmental consequences
The letter writers are upset because the Exxon CEO downplayed the validity of climate models and the value of renewable energy policies. Well get over it – the Exxon CEO makes very valid points. The climate models have genuine validity problems, and current renewable energy policies are actually hampering things by diverting resources away from energy innovation.
It is worth revisiting my previous post Misinformation, disinformation and conflict. Excerpt:
In terms of actual scientific facts in climate science, we have the infrared emission spectra of CO2. The rest of what passes for ‘information’ in the climate debate is really hypotheses or theories.
Disagreement with someone’s hypothesis or theory, or not being convinced, does not make them a misinformer, disinformer or denier.
People discussing misinformation and disinformation in the context of a scientific debate are commonly doing so in context of frustrations and failures in their own propaganda to stimulate a policy response based on their view of what ‘science says’.
It is sad (well much worse than sad) to see the AGU Executive falling for the ‘misinformation’ vs ‘consensus’ framing of climate science, without accounting for the massive uncertainties and the genuine disagreement.
But that said, it is refreshing to see AGU engaging with industry (including oil companies) in a productive way. Would the climate science ‘enterprise’ be at the current impasse if they had engaged the energy companies from day one (back in the 1980’s): collaborating to develop emissions scenarios that make sense, and developing strategies to minimize the environmental impacts of fossil fuel use. Engagement with oil companies can also help support needed intellectual diversity in climate science to avoid the massive groupthink we now see.
Instead, the fossil fuel companies were immediately positioned as ‘villains’, which exacerbated the traditional antagonism between green advocacy groups and the libertarian think tanks/advocacy groups and their lobbying efforts. Back in the mid noughties, oil companies (especially Exxon) did fund contrarian science.
I recall seeing publicized an offer from Exxon for $10,000 to scientists who would poke holes in the IPCC AR4. At the time, I thought this was ‘evil’, since other ‘important’ climate scientists were making such statements in the media. Now I know better. SOMEONE should have been funding scientists to take an independent and critical look at the IPCC consensus and challenge it. Heck, the National Science Foundation should have been funding this. If the consensus is defensible, then skeptical challenges will only strengthen it. In areas where it is not defensible, skeptical challenges serve to move the science forward.
Isn’t that our job description as scientists, and shouldn’t professional societies be promoting such activities? Hah! The climate scientists who think they are ‘masters of the universe’ are busy with their naive advocacy/activism; when this is amplified by the professional societies in the form of position papers etc., this advocacy/activism becomes irresponsible and detrimental to science.
Back to AGU. So it is relief to see the AGU executive not immediately capitulating to the demands of the activists, and seriously considering its relationships with corporate sponsors. But I am afraid that the whole activist mentality has become so entrenched at AGU (at the great expense of the science), that the Executive doesn’t even realize the broader problems here. For additional context on funding and bias, see these previous posts:
- Industry funding and bias
- Is federal funding biasing research?
- Hypocrisy at universities over oil company funding/divestment
The utter naivete of the scientist/activists/advocates never fails to astonish me, and the sheer irresponsibility of their advocacy never fails to concern me.
One last comment. In looking at all the signatories to the letter (including the added ones), I was quite disturbed to see a number of young scientists signing, that were from the same institutions of the signatories of the ‘prime movers’ on this. If a senior faculty member came along (one who has a vote on your tenure case) and tries to convince you to sign this, I imagine many would think twice before saying ‘no.’ A very clear, but unfortunate, lesson to young climate scientists in how supporting the consensus can help you advance your career.