As its Lone Climate Scientist Board Member Departs, ExxonMobil Still Heads in the Wrong Direction

April 4, 2024 | 9:11 am
ExxonMobil on a financial stock computer screenMichael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Kathy Mulvey
Accountability Campaign Director, Climate & Energy Program

As ExxonMobil prepares for its annual general meeting (AGM) this spring, the corporation is facing calls to drop an unprecedented lawsuit against shareholders who are asking for deeper global warming emissions reductions. There has been comparatively less attention to the decision by climate scientist Dr. Susan Avery not to seek re-election to the ExxonMobil board of directors. Yet this shift in corporate leadership is significant, marking the end of a chapter in ExxonMobil’s long and ongoing history of climate deception and disinformation.

Here’s a primer on why a climate scientist was on ExxonMobil’s board, what Dr. Avery accomplished during her tenure, and how ExxonMobil has acted on climate science over the past seven years. I conclude with one plea to Dr. Avery in her final weeks on ExxonMobil’s board: to call on her colleagues in corporate leadership to stop the company from suing shareholders who are seeking to preserve a livable climate.

Why is a climate scientist on ExxonMobil’s board?

Because climate-conscious investors requested it. As evidence mounted of ExxonMobil’s role in concerted campaigns to deny climate science—through investigative journalism exposés and reports such as UCS’s Climate Deception Dossiers—shareholders called for the company to nominate an independent director with climate change expertise, believing that the presence of an expert would  lead to science-informed corporate decisions.

Dr. Susan Avery, a physicist and atmospheric scientist, is the former director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) in Massachusetts. She’s also professor emeritus at University of Colorado at Boulder. At the time of her nomination, Dr. Avery was a respected climate scientist—although she had also sparked controversy with her decisions at WHOI to accept major funding from oil and gas corporations.

It’s worth noting that the shareholder proposal requesting the nomination of a climate expert to ExxonMobil’s board received just over 20 percent support in 2016. Yet the corporation acted on it—giving the lie to claims that such shareholder advocacy is frivolous. In fact, shareholder resolutions can be an early warning system to help corporations address issues of investor and public concern before they snowball into major problems.

What did Dr. Avery accomplish?

Cynically speaking, she raked in well over $2 million in compensation for carrying out her responsibilities as an ExxonMobil director.

As a member of ExxonMobil’s board of directors and chair of the Environment, Safety, and Public Policy (ESPP) committee of the board, Dr. Avery was in a unique position with a critical responsibility to steer the corporation toward scientific integrity, transparency, and accountability. Shareholders and scientists had a legitimate expectation that she would use her leadership role to ensure that the company’s resources were not used to promote faulty science, climate disinformation, or greenwashing campaigns. Unfortunately, ExxonMobil’s decisions and actions over the course of her board tenure have dashed that expectation.

Back in the pre-pandemic days when ExxonMobil held in-person AGMs, I attended on the proxy of climate-conscious shareholders. Scientists from a range of disciplines and institutions joined me to ask questions of corporate decisionmakers and speak in support of climate action. You can read their insights from their experiences—including being denied the opportunity to take the floor—and their efforts to engage with Dr. Avery in 2017, 2018, and 2019.

A turning point for shareholder advocacy

ExxonMobil’s appointment of Dr. Avery to its board was an acknowledgment of mounting pressure on the corporation to align its decisions and actions with climate science. And the pressure kept growing. At ExxonMobil’s 2017 AGM—when Dr. Avery was added to the board—a majority of shareholders for the first time approved a climate-related shareholder proposal.

A few months later, Dr. Geoffrey Supran and Dr. Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University published an important peer-reviewed study of ExxonMobil’s climate change communications, concluding that the corporation “contributed quietly to climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it.”

What followed was a stream of yearly corporate reports produced in response to investor demands that ExxonMobil disclose its plans for a world that meets the Paris climate agreement’s goal of limiting the global average temperature increase to well below 2 degrees Celsius (°C) above preindustrial levels, and striving to limit it to 1.5°C.

ExxonMobil wrapped itself in the mantle of “net zero”—conveniently omitting the emissions deriving from use of its oil and gas products, which account for about 85 percent of the total global warming emissions attributable to the corporation. The company used Dr. Avery’s image in promoting its bogus net-zero solutions.

The corporation faced an unprecedented shareholder rebellion in 2021, with upstart hedge fund investor Engine No. 1 capturing three seats on the board by successfully arguing that ExxonMobil was failing to adapt for the transition to clean energy. During Dr. Avery’s tenure, three climate-related shareholder proposals won majorities.

Not an information deficit

However, one climate expert on the board evidently could not change ExxonMobil’s business model. Numerous academic studies and internal corporate documents reveal that the problem was not a deficit of information. A single climate expert clearly failed to steer the corporation away from climate disinformation. Did her presence enable ExxonMobil to hone its climate disinformation and greenwashing for a new era when bald-faced climate denial no longer works?

The fossil fuel giant now claims to be “aligned” with the Paris climate agreement, all while it continues to massively expand oil and gas exploration and production and lobby against climate action. In sworn testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee in 2021, ExxonMobil Chair and CEO Darren Woods refused to ensure that corporate funds are not spent to spread disinformation and block climate action.

Not surprisingly, Big Oil’s disinformation campaign continues, as documented by the Congressional investigation and climate accountability lawsuits filed by dozens of cities, counties, and states across the United States and its territories.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil also resists transparency, working through the US Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute, and other business trade groups to oppose a strong Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) rule designed to mandate standardized and comparable corporate disclosures. (Read this recent blog by my colleague Laura Peterson to learn how the SEC weakened its final climate disclosure rule in an (unsuccessful) attempt to placate foes.)

Leading in the wrong direction

In the face of the climate crisis, every board member of every publicly held corporation must be climate competent—and every board member has a duty to limit corporate climate impacts, plan for the transition to clean renewable energy, and support science-based climate policy. Some experts warn that board members of corporations that do not adequately manage climate-related risks could even be held personally liable for breaching their legal obligations.

Dr. Avery, for her part, gave a ringing endorsement of ExxonMobil’s 2023 “Advancing Climate Solutions” report—a masterclass in paltering (using selected truthful statements to mislead) and greenwashing (deceptive marketing to suggest companies or products are environmentally friendly). “As chair of our ESPP Committee,” she said, “I’m proud to work on key issues related to climate risk at ExxonMobil. With my experience as an atmospheric scientist and a leader at a global research organization, I am committed to helping to advise the Board on public issues of significance…. The members of the ESPP Committee are united in our commitment to position ExxonMobil as an industry leader in pursuing sustainable solutions that improve quality of life and meet society’s evolving needs.”

As Dr. Avery nears the end of seven years on the board, here’s a snapshot of “key issues related to climate risk at ExxonMobil”:

  • ExxonMobil presents misleading science and refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for reducing emissions from the use of its oil and gas products. In its 2024 “Advancing Climate Solutions” report, ExxonMobil continues to deny any responsibility for Scope 3 emissions from use of the oil and gas products that it markets and sells—which constitute roughly 85 percent of the heat-trapping emissions attributable to ExxonMobil. My climate scientist colleague Dr. Carly Phillips does a great job explaining how the charts presented in this report are not scientifically rigorous and even appear intentionally vague and misleading, which reduces transparency around ExxonMobil’s climate impacts and mitigation efforts.  
  • The corporation’s “low carbon” roadmap relies heavily on unproven and unscaled technologies. ExxonMobil focuses on net-zero technologies such as carbon capture and storage (CCS) and hydrogen, calling into question the corporate commitment to reducing emissions in the critical period between now and 2030.
  • ExxonMobil’s advertising campaigns mislead consumers, overstate its current and planned clean energy endeavors, and increase its own liability. Given the centrality of polluting fossil fuels to its business, ExxonMobil’s recent marketing campaigns have been criticized as greenwashing for falsely representing ExxonMobil as a clean energy leader, making overblown claims about the environmental benefits of its products, and touting unproven technologies. In addition to misleading the public about key scientific and environmental issues, these campaigns increase corporate liability. The company is now being sued by states and municipalities across the United States and its territories for consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices, and racketeering, threatening the financial security of shareholders such as public pension funds.
  • ExxonMobil continues to fund organizations that spread climate disinformation and seek to block climate action. Despite the company’s public claims of “advancing climate solutions,” ExxonMobil retains leadership roles in several trade associations—including  the American Petroleum Institute, American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, and National Association of Manufacturers—that engage in climate obstructionist lobbying. ExxonMobil also continues to bankroll organizations such as the American Enterprise Institute and the US Chamber of Commerce that have a long and ongoing history of distorting science and downplaying the grave nature of the climate crisis.

Ultimately, ExxonMobil’s “Global Outlook” projects higher oil, gas, and coal consumption in 2050 than today, utterly failing to align with Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency scenarios that fossil fuel use must fall to limit the most dangerous impacts of climate change.

Stop suing climate-conscious shareholders

Perhaps nothing shows that ExxonMobil is determined to maintain its climate-destroying business model better than the company’s current lawsuit against its own shareholders. In January, the corporation sued two shareholder groups that had filed a resolution requesting medium-term targets for reducing emissions from corporate operations and from the use of its oil and gas products. ExxonMobil is pressing ahead with its lawsuit even after the shareholders withdrew their proposal.

The SEC has long recognized climate change is a significant issue that shareholders have an interest in discussing. The agency has allowed many climate-related shareholder resolutions to proceed to a vote in recent years, and none has provoked such a legal backlash. As the climate crisis worsens, investors have a right to understand and address the financial risks posed by delays in climate action, particularly by fossil fuel companies, such as ExxonMobil, that are contributing disproportionately to the problem while failing to evolve for the clean energy transition.

ExxonMobil should not attempt to repress its shareholders’ ability to consider and provide strategic guidance to corporate leadership about one of the most pressing issues of our time. This lawsuit against shareholders calling for more ambitious climate action, along with ExxonMobil’s aggressive expansion of oil and gas production, demonstrate to investors and the world that the corporation continues to act in bad faith. Investors including the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS)—the largest US pension fund—are calling on ExxonMobil to drop the lawsuit and weighing whether to keep their investments in light of these tactics.

Over the past seven years, Dr. Avery has frustrated shareholders, scientists, and the general public by failing to steer the corporation toward transparency and accountability—and away from climate disinformation and greenwashing. While she cannot erase that legacy, in her final days on the ExxonMobil board Dr. Avery could do a significant service to climate science by persuading her colleagues in corporate leadership to drop this frivolous and hypocritical lawsuit. She still has time to act before her term expires at the corporation’s AGM in late May.