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Bioengineering major Daniel Gutierrez studies in the Rice University library on August 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas.

Bioengineering major Daniel Gutierrez studies in the Rice University library on August 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo: Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Scientists Launch Petition Urging Academic Publisher to Stop Aiding Fossil Fuel Industry

Elsevier's collaboration with oil and gas firms is "incompatible" with its purported "commitment to climate action," said one scientist. "In fact, this is what inaction on climate change looks like. It's what greenwashing looks like."

Kenny Stancil

A group of scientists on Wednesday launched a petition demanding that academic publishing powerhouse Elsevier cut ties with the fossil fuel industry and abandon other "activities that are antithetical to meeting the kind of climate goals science tells us we need in order to reduce the worst impacts of climate change."

Elsevier, a Dutch firm that operates more than 2,700 scientific, technical, and medical journals in which research is peer-reviewed and disseminated, and its parent company, RELX, claim to be committed to environmental protection, vowing to minimize their "contribution to climate change, in line with the scale of action deemed necessary by science."

"The thing about fossil fuels is that they're insidiously woven into the financial fabric of countless other companies."

But earlier this year, journalist Amy Westervelt revealed how Elsevier, one of just a few companies that publish peer-reviewed climate research, "works with the fossil fuel industry to help increase oil and gas drilling."

In their new petition, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) argue that "Elsevier can do better" and urge the publisher to "better align its business practices with its publicly stated values and pledges."

As Westervelt explained in The Guardian, the company "behind many renowned peer-reviewed scientific journals, including The Lancet and Global Environmental Change, is also one of the top publishers of books aimed at expanding fossil fuel production."

"For more than a decade, the company has supported the energy industry's efforts to optimize oil and gas extraction," Westervelt reported. "It commissions authors, editors, and journal advisory board members who are employees at top oil firms. Elsevier also markets some of its research portals and data services directly to the oil and gas industry to help 'increase the odds of exploration success.'"

"Top climate scientists, including those published in Elsevier's own journals, however, say just the opposite must happen in order to avert a climate catastrophe," the journalist noted. "Limiting warming to 1.5°C or less requires a worldwide decrease in fossil fuel production with more than 80% of all proven reserves left in the ground."

According to UCS and SGR, pledges made by RLEX "include membership in the [United Nations] Race to Zero campaign, which has set a deadline of June 15, 2023 for members to halt the facilitation of new fossil fuel assets and to ensure that all external engagement activities are aligned with reaching the global net-zero goal."

"We the undersigned, many of us users and authors of Elsevier publications, call on the company to meet its Race to Zero commitments and to align its business practices as well as the products and services it offers with its publicly stated values and goals," the groups' letter states.

To that end, UCS and SGR are calling on RLEX to cease the following five practices:

  • Providing fossil fuel industry-oriented R&D and data services that are being used by most top oil, gas, and coal companies;
  • Lobbying and financially supporting U.S. politicians who block climate action;
  • Disseminating content that reveals exploration areas, informs exploration practices and techniques, provides the industry with legal resources for expansion, and promotes R&D for new technologies needed for deep-water, Arctic, and nonconventional exploration;
  • Removing barriers to exploring and operating in emerging markets through Lexis Nexis Risk Solutions for oil and gas; and
  • Hosting coal, offshore drilling, and other industry exhibitions that enable participants to grow their businesses and boost fossil fuel production.

Signatories are requesting a formal response from RLEX by January 30 that "describes the changes that will be implemented by the U.N.'s June 15, 2023 deadline, including but not limited to the areas described above."

UCS and SGR say that the response must "include a pledge to cease providing goods or services that inform new fossil fuel projects" and "meet the standards of business conduct established under accords the company publicly claims to uphold," including but not limited to the U.N. Race to Zero campaign, U.N. Global Compact, U.N. sustainable development goals, and U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

"If no response is provided, or if the company's response does not sufficiently meet the above criteria, stakeholders reserve the right to participate in operational-level grievance mechanisms for individuals and communities adversely impacted by company activities and its business relationships," the letter continues.

According to UCS and SGR, "These mechanisms are outlined in the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights guidelines, which stipulate that formal judgment, if needed, is to be provided by a legitimate, independent third-party mechanism."

In response, Westervelt tweeted, "This could get interesting!"

Earlier this year, Sherri Aldis, acting deputy director for the U.N. Department of Global Communications, told the journalist that "we will not comment on the practices of individual companies, but any actions actively supporting the expansion of fossil fuel development are indeed inconsistent" with the U.N.'s sustainable development goals.

In a blog post accompanying the petition, UCS climate scientist Kristy Dahl wrote: "When I think of greenwashing—the practice of making a product, policy, or activity appear to be more environmentally friendly than it really is—the biggies come to mind first: the ExxonMobils, the Shells, and the Chevrons of the world. When fossil fuel production and deception form twin cores of a company's business model, greenwashing is easy to spot and to call out."

"But the thing about fossil fuels is that they're insidiously woven into the financial fabric of countless other companies," Dahl continued.

Elsevier's collaboration with oil and gas firms is "incompatible" with its purported "commitment to climate action," she added. "In fact, this is what inaction on climate change looks like. It's what greenwashing looks like."

With $9.8 billion in annual revenues, roughly one-third of which is attributable to Elsevier, RELX is an extremely profitable corporation.

As Westervelt pointed out in her February exposé: "Elsevier is not alone in navigating relationships with both climate researchers and fossil fuel executives. Multiple other publishers of peer-reviewed climate research have signed on to the U.N.'s Sustainable Development Goals Publishers Compact while also partnering with the oil and gas industry in various ways."

She continued:

The U.K.-based publisher Taylor & Francis, for example, signed the U.N. pledge and released its own net-zero commitments while also touting its publishing partnership with "industry leader" ExxonMobil, the oil company most linked to obstructionism on climate in the public consciousness. Another top climate publisher, Wiley, also signed on to the sustainability compact while publishing multiple books and journals aimed at helping the industry find and drill for more oil and gas.

"It's problematic," Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden, told her at the time. "If the same publisher putting out the papers that show definitively we can't burn any more fossil fuels and stay within this carbon budget is also helping the fossil fuel industry do just that, what does that do to the whole premise of validity around the climate research? That is what's deeply concerning about these conflicts."

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