Exxon Bashing, the AGU, and the Folly of Position Statements

by Marlo Lewis on February 23, 2016

in Blog

Post image for Exxon Bashing, the AGU, and the Folly of Position Statements

In a joint letter yesterday, more than 100 scientists, including Kerry Emmanuel (MIT), James Hansen (Columbia University), and Michael Mann (Penn State University), urged American Geophysical Union (AGU) President Margaret Leinen to “reconsider” (i.e. terminate) ExxonMobil’s sponsorship of the association’s Fall meetings. Climatewire ($) provides some useful context:

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.

Leinen declined to give ExxonMobil the boot. As explained yesterday on her blog (h/t Anthony Watts), AGU’s Board discussed allegations that ExxonMobil is promoting “misinformation about climate change, climate science and the role of human activity in climate change, or actively supporting organizations that do,” and concluded that “ExxonMobil’s current public statements and activities were not inconsistent with AGU’s positions and the scientific consensus.” However, expulsion remains an option if, in the future, the company deviates from AGU’s positions:

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.

Hardly a profile in courage. 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.

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.”

Well, to quote Chairman Bob, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. As one green blog enthused: “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.” Got that? If you are fossil fuel company, you are inherently illegitimate and not entitled to participate in scientific discourse. From there it’s a short jump to the conclusion that fossil energy companies are not entitled to participate in any form of public discourse.

And indeed, what is the point of demanding RICO and Martin Act investigations of Exxon and other fossil energy companies if not to chill speech and silence dissent?

When scientists behave like partisan hacks in the name of science, they degrade both science and politics. An obvious insight, but self-awareness has never been a strong suit of the academician (Plato, Theaetetus, 173c-174a).

The remainder of this post offers a running commentary on the “substantive” portions of the Exxon bashers’ letter. Excerpts are in maroon, my comments in black.

Dear Dr. Margaret Leinen,

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.

ML Comment: Nonsense. 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.

Over the past 60-plus years, global population tripled, global per capita income quadrupled, and global average life expectancy increased by 20 years, notes economist Indur Goklany. Population, per capita income, and life expectancy are the best overall measures of human health and welfare. Positive trends in all three metrics indicate an increasingly “sustainable” civilization.







Goklany documents several other important positive trends that indicate an increasingly sustainable civilization rather than a planet in crisis:

  • During the past quarter century, despite a 35% (1.9 billion-person) increase in global population, the number of people living in chronic hunger declined by 216 million.
  • Even in low-income counties, life expectancy increased from 42 years in 1960 to 62 years today.
  • There were 947 million fewer people living in absolute poverty in 2011 than in 1981, despite a population increase of 2.5 billion people in developing countries.
  • Global deaths and death rates related to extreme weather declined by 93% and 98%, respectively, since the 1920s.
  • From 1961 to 2013, yields of cereal crops increased by 85% in the world’s poorest countries, and 185% worldwide.
  • Between 1990 and 2012, an additional 2.3 billion people got access to clean water and 2 billion people got access to improved sanitation.
  • From 1900 to 2012, the global mortality rate for malaria declined by 95.4%.

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.”

As David Middleton sardonically observed, in the late ’70s Exxon knew exactly what James Hansen knew in 1988–that fossil-fuel emissions could cause 2-3 times more warming than has actually occurred:










Figure explanation. Red: Hansen’s business-as-usual (no climate policy) scenario. Orange: Hansen’s emission freeze at 1980s level scenario. Yellow: Hansen’s drastic emission-reduction scenario. Light blue: Remote Sensing System (RSS) satellite temperature record. Dark blue: University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) satellite temperature record. Although emissions increased as much as in Hansen’s BAU scenario, observed temperatures are lower than in Hansen’s drastic emission-reduction scenario. Source: John Christy

The expel-Exxon letter continues:

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.

ML Comment: Hilarious. “Pro-renewable energy policies” come in two main varieties: taxpayer and ratepayer subsidies to renewable energy companies, a.k.a. corporate welfare, and renewable energy quota–a reversion to Soviet-era centralized planning. There is nothing scientific about rigging energy markets for the benefit of special interests, and nothing unscientific about opposing such mischief. Those who claim scientific status for such wealth-transfer schemes should put on dunce caps and sit in the corner.

As for the claim that ALEC “routinely misrepresents climate science,” the link provided by the Exxon bashers provides no explanation–no actual scientific refutation of any ALEC research products or analyses. EPA, which is far more influential than either ALEC or Exxon on climate issues, is a leading purveyor of climate flimflam. But hell will freeze over before any of the 100+ Exxon bashers utters of peep of criticism about EPA climate propaganda.

As for Rex Tillerson’s doubts about climate models, what informed person doesn’t share them?  The facts speak for themselves.








Figure explanation. Global average mid-tropospheric temperature variations (5-year averages) for 32 models (lines) representing 102 individual simulations. Circles (balloons) and squares (satellites) depict the observations. On average, modeled warming is three times faster than observed warming. Source: John Christy.

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.

ML Comment: The petitioners refuse to face the facts. ExxonMobil is a scapegoat for their failures and frustrations. The public is not with them because:

  1. The climate crisis is largely a conclusion of computer modeling. Models that can’t hindcast what has already happened can’t be trusted to forecast what will happen and are not good enough to guide public policy. The general public has enough familiarity with GIGO to get the point.
  2. So-called climate mitigation policies would make energy scarcer and more costly. Inflating energy costs can harm consumers and damage the economy. Consumers know this without any tutoring from Exxon.
  3. Climate activists increasingly seek to stifle dissent, circumvent legislative checks and balances, and centralize power for the benefit of “progressive” politicians, unelected bureaucrats, unaccountable pressure groups, and corporate rent seekers. To a large segment of the population, that’s not a pretty picture.

Indeed, the AGU has established a long history of scientific excellence with its peer-reviewed publications and conferences, as well as its strong position statement on the urgency of climate action, and we’re proud to be included among its members.

But by allowing Exxon to appropriate AGU’s 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.

ML Comment: 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.

McKitrick’s commentary is short, to the point, and utterly persuasive. I reproduce it in full.

Should Scientific Societies Issue Position Statements?

Ross McKitrick

November 23, 2006

The American Meteorological Society has released a draft statement on climate change for comment over the next few weeks. As an economist I find it strange that scientific societies show such a propensity to issue position statements. One of the reasons economists have maintained relatively free collegiality while debating issues with controversial policy implications is that our major associations do not issue position statements.

I am a member of the American Economic Association. Its 3 objectives are listed at http://www.vanderbilt.edu/AEA/gen_info.htm:

1. The encouragement of economic research, especially the historical and statistical study of the actual conditions of industrial life.

2. The issue of publications on economic subjects.

3. The encouragement of perfect freedom of economic discussion. The Association as such will take no partisan attitude, nor will it commit its members to any position on practical economic questions.

I am also a member of the Canadian Economics Association. Its policies are at http://economics.ca/en/information.php. Its position is like that of the AEA:

The Association has for its object the advancement of economic knowledge through the encouragement of study and research, the issuing of publications, and the furtherance of free and informed discussion of economic questions. The Association as such will not assume a partisan position upon any question of practical politics nor commit its members to any position thereupon.

In both cases the promotion of free discussion is coupled to the refusal to issue position statements.

Official statements celebrate group think and conformity. They effectively demote members who disagree with some or all of the statement to second-class status within their profession, regardless of the quality of their own individual work or their reasons for disagreement. And they create divisions and alienation within the profession. Having issued a party line, it cannot be a surprise that partisanship emerges, with all its potential for polarization and resentment.

Official statements also legitimate the appeal to authority as a form of argumentation. By issuing a position statement, they encourage outside commentators to buttress their position by appeal to the “Expert Statement”, rather than by appeal to evidence. The official statement thereby supplies a fallacious rhetorical device to one side in a political debate.

Perhaps some climate scientists think the benefits of issuing official statements outweigh the loss of collegiality, and the discouragement of free and informed discussion. For my part I prefer the official neutrality of economic societies.



Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: