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Geologist blasts Society - a response

Jonathan Cowie responds to the recent resignation of long term Fellow Bill McGuire, as reported in BBC News online

climate systemCan there ever by truly clean commercial sponsorship? This is one of the quandaries that has dogged my entire professional life. I first struggled with this back in the early 1980s – if you distil it right down, there is a case for saying there is no clean commercial money; that local, homemade cake company that sponsored the catering at your AGM inevitably has issues ranging from the food miles and fossil carbon involved somewhere throughout their supply chain through to being motivated by using your learned charity’s good name to potentially secure new customers. Is that really 100% ethical? Pure altruism, some philosophers say, is a myth.

Many Fellows, no doubt, will have been interested by the recent headline 'Geologist blasts society's links with oil firms'. The story concerned a Geological Society Fellow’s resignation due to the Society's links with the fossil fuel industry. My own interest stems not just from being a Fellow myself. I have been a senior manager at another learned professional scientific body, and my career has almost entirely involved working with scientific charities. So I have a certain empathy with learned society management.  I also have an interest in climate change, including having written a number of books on the subject.

Learned societies are in one sense very much caught between a rock and a hard place.  It would be easy to say the Geological Society's involvement with fossil fuel companies is historical, dating from more naive times, but the bottom line is that these companies do employ geoscientists and the Society aims to represent the UK geoscience community in its entirety.

Yes, some fossil fuel companies have done Machiavellian things such as active disinformation as to climate science (disinformation that has at times made my own life harder, and caused some uncomfortable moments).  However, fossil fuel companies are not just fossil fuel companies; they are petrochemical companies. Yes, single-use, non-recyclable plastic bags are bad, but our society needs polymers. Yes, the over-use of fertilisers leads to eutrophication, but without the green revolution we could not feed our global population and more agricultural pressure would be imposed on wildlife areas.  Both these are but two examples of our continued need for petrochemicals.

My own climate change science work has necessitated understanding petrochemical company concerns and issues: I have talked with middle and senior managers in the industry.  Roughly half these encounters have been, in some way or another, mediated by the Geological Society.

Maybe my encounters are biased: petrochemical company staff I encounter at scientific events are self-selecting, being those that choose to participate in gatherings run by the science community.  Yet the summary take-home message I have picked up from them is that petrochemical companies are essentially businesses out to make money and to do that better than their competitors.  They are, though, aware of climate change concerns and desperately want to know what is the long-term economic framework in which they (including their competitors) will have to operate.  This is a fundamental truth of all long-term businesses - as current Brexit shenanigans have made self-evident.

I sense that the petrochemical industry would, for example, cease making the polymers used for non-recyclable, single-use bags if such bags were banned, and would instead manufacture the chemical feedstocks for easy-to-recycle, multi-use goods. Similarly, if the world generated electricity in non-fossil carbon ways, and fossil-fuel cars became a rarity, then they simply would not produce petrol for cars or oil for oil-fired power stations but focus on supplying chemical feedstocks.

Of course, if our political leaders choose to shut down trials of carbon capture and storage plants, or choose to build a third runway at Heathrow (few politicians are prepared to lay down in front of bulldozers), then the fossil fuel companies will equally go with that.

Of course, it is easier to carry on and act as has been done in the past as opposed to developing new behaviours.  So if we are to have new behaviours then we need to actively encourage them: they are unlikely to happen by themselves (it's 'economic inertia').

There is (rightly) much fear and concern about climate change. We are going to have to transform the entirety of the global economy to one that sees the combustion of fossil carbon as a virtually criminal act (as is now the release of ozone depleters), and oil as simply too valuable to burn.  Polymers will still need to be made and recycled. Ditto a myriad of other petrochemical products. The 'oil companies' will have to transform themselves or die. (Likely some will and some won't, and there will be new players.)

To get from where we are today to a future with sustainable human ecology, virtually all sectors of society are going to have to work towards the goal of a future with sustainable human ecology. This will certainly include those in the petrochemical industries, geoscientists (both those that work in the afore industries as well as those on the Earth system side concerned with climate change science), economists, politicians and consumers.  A key part of this dynamic will surely be how the geoscience community and the petrochemical industries relate.

The question is whether we think that a sustainable future goal will be more readily realised if the broader geoscience community eschews all work with the petrochemical industry, or whether there should be an active relationship. 

The uncomfortable truth is that the Society cannot do all that it does solely with its own resources.  Nor can the Society be seen to be broadly representative of the UK geoscience community without involving those in the petrochemical industries.

Finally, surely it is better for an oil company to spend a pound on encouraging and disseminating evidence-based science rather than on using that pound for, say, climate disinformation?

Yes, I can understand the concerns the resigning Geological Society Fellow has.  And yes, the Geological Society could do more in informing petrochemical industries about the consequence of business-as-usual as well as in informing politicians as to the economic framework needed to create a sustainable future.

I accept that the Geological Society Fellow's resignation is not without merit, if only because it has stimulated Geological Society introspection of which arguably this article is a part.

If this is so, then congratulations, job done.  Now we need to get on and provide evidence-based arguments for politicians, the science for industry to innovate solutions, and verifiable facts for a public imbued with ‘fake news.’ 

Given this, I hope that our former Geological Society Fellow will – having made a commendable stand and stimulated debate – consider rejoining the Fellowship.  It really is all hands to the pump.

Jonathan Cowie is a former Head of Science Policy of the Institute of Biology (the precursor body to the Royal Society of Biology). The first edition of his Climate Change: Biological and Human Aspects (Cambridge U. Press) was cited by UNEP, as part of the UN's World Environment Day in 2008, as one of the top climate science text books of the 21st century.  He can be found at

Bill McGuire responds (28 January 2020):

"The points raised are ones that should have been debated 30 or 40 years ago. Now, sadly, it is far too late.

The bottom line is that emissions need to fall by around 7.5 percent a year, every year for the next decade, to have any chance at all of avoiding catastrophic, all-pervasive climate change. At the same time, fossil fuel companies' published plans show that they intend to extract enough oil, gas and coal to push up the global average temperature rise to a devastating 3 - 4 degrees C. This is clearly insane. Even knowing what the consequences will be, fossil fuel companies are sticking two fingers up to the rest of us and damning our children and grandchildren to a grim future. At this time, there is simply no excuse for the Geological Society or any other learned or professional organisation to have anything to do with the fossil fuel sector and its senseless strategy."