Photo: Carl Milner Photography (Flickr)

American’s largest annual Earth science conference doesn’t kick off until next week, but things are already getting heated. Members of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) are up in arms over the organization’s decision to give a prestigious award to Senator Cory Gardner, who in 2015 voted against a measure declaring human activity “significantly contributes to climate change.”

Gardner (R-Colorado) and Senator Gary Peters (D-Michigan) are being awarded AGU’s Presidential Citation, which “recognize[s] leaders whose work has helped advance Earth and space science and increase the understanding and appreciation of its value to society,” as put in a December 2 blog post by AGU president Eric Davidson and executive director Chris McEntee. The post explains these two senators were selected for the award because of their efforts to pass the American Innovation and Competitiveness Act of 2017.

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That act, the AGU said, will help strengthen STEM education nationwide, boost opportunities for women and minorities in STEM, and ensure adequate funding for the National Science Foundation. That’s all well and good, but for many rank-and-file members of AGU, it doesn’t erase Gardner’s decidedly underwhelming record when it comes to the environment and climate change.

The League of Conservation Voters gives Gardner a paltry 10 percent for his lifetime voting record on environmental issues, with recent highlights including his vote to confirm climate denier and disgraced scandal magnate Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and his vote against keeping oil and gas drilling out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. But perhaps the biggest sticking point for AGU members was Gardner’s 2015 vote against a bill amendment recognizing that climate change is driven by human activity.

An open letter to the AGU, which began circulating publicly on December 5, notes that vote is in direct contraction to the organization’s position statement that climate change is real, driven by humans, and requires “urgent action.” The letter adds that granting Gardner an award undercuts the urgency of climate change as laid out by more than 300 scientists in the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report the Trump Administration has attempted to bury and deny at every turn.

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Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, organized the letter along with University of Southern California Earth sciences professor Julien Emile-Geay after hearing Gardner would be receiving an award on Twitter. She says that after digging into the senator’s record, she became “really quite appalled” at the AGU’s decision to honor him.

“It really becomes an issue of integrity,” Cobb told Earther, adding that AGU’s actions don’t exactly telegraph that the organization is ready to defend the integrity of climate science.

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Many members of the scientific community seem to agree. As of writing, the letter has received over 200 signatures. While Cobb and Emile-Geay asked that signatories be limited to AGU members, people are self-verifying their membership status and Earther is unable to confirm if all of the signatories are indeed of part of the professional society. Either way, the list of names includes some of the most prestigious climate scientists in the world, and it’s still growing.

“We think it’s pretty clear there’s a large consistency in the climate science community that is concerned and would like to see AGU expand on this process [of award granting] and ensure something like this doesn’t happen again,” Cobb said.

While Cobb said the AGU has not reached out to her directly, the organization is aware of the growing storm. The aforementioned December 2 statement even offers an apology of sorts, stating that the organization “failed to communicate” with its community about its reasons for choosing to recognize Gardner this year and that it did not act to “proactively address the concerns” members raised. “For that we are deeply sorry,” the memo reads.

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When reached for comment by Earther, the AGU was less apologetic. It sent a statement explaining that the two senators were being honored because they “have shown leadership on a number of science issues by working in an inclusive and bipartisan manner.”

“Reaching across the aisle to support scientific research as these two Senators have done is especially critical given our current divided government,” the statement continues.

I guess we’ll have to wait and see whether Gardner’s future bipartisan efforts include a firmer endorsement of the scientific realities of climate change.

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