Hayhoe Explores Ethics of Fossil-Funded Climate Research
Iconic and influential U.S. climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe is out with a unique perspective on Exxon’s decades-long attempt to sow doubt about climate science and impacts. On EcoWatch, she identifies herself as one of the scientists whose work the colossal fossil has helped fund over the years.
“It may be easy to point a finger at others, but when it happens to us, the choice might not seem so clear,” Hayhoe writes. “Which is most important—the benefit of the research and education, or the rejection of tainted funds?”
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On the heels of a peer-reviewed study that document the gaps between Exxon’s private climate science research and its public efforts to undercut that science, Hayhoe recalls that she was funded by Exxon between 1995 and 1997, spending several weeks at one of the company’s research facilities and working on three of the studies referenced in the critical analysis by Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran.
“Exxon provided partial financial support for my master’s thesis, which focused on methane chemistry and emissions,” Hayhoe writes. That experience reinforced her sense that “a scientist is a scientist no matter where we work, and my Exxon colleagues were no exception. Thoughtful, cautious, and in full agreement with the scientific consensus on climate—these are characteristics any scientist would be proud to own.”
Hayhoe’s master’s thesis focused on methane chemistry and emissions—a topic “that would raise no red flags in climate policy circles”, and points to significant cost savings for the fossil industry.
“Did Exxon have an agenda for our research? Of course—it’s not a charity,” she writes. But “did I know what else they were up to at the time? I couldn’t even imagine it.” Now, in a seemingly “unreal” situation where many U.S. elected representatives oppose climate action while China leaps ahead on clean technology, the pushback against Exxon is stimulating a moral debate for climate scientists.
“Are we willing to accept financial support that is offered as a sop to the public conscience?” asks Hayhoe, who famously combines her work on climate science with her own deep religious conviction. “The appropriate response to morally tainted offerings is an ancient question. In the book of Corinthians, the apostle Paul responds to a query on what to do with food that has been sacrificed to idols—eat or reject?” His response—that food is food—“illustrates the complexity of this issue,” she writes. Accepting tainted food or tainted money “can imply alliance or acceptance. And if it affects others, a more discerning response may be needed.”
Which leaves Hayhoe with no easy answer for what she would do if Exxon offered her a research grant today. “I might ask them to give those funds to politicians who endorse sensible climate policy—and cut their funding to those who don’t,” she writes. “Or I admire one colleague’s practical response: to use a Koch-funded honorarium to purchase a lifetime membership in the Sierra Club.”