Assessing ExxonMobil's climate change communications (1977–2014)

A new chapter opened yesterday in the question of whether ExxonMobil has deliberately misled the public on the reality and risks of climate change. Recall that 2015 investigative journalism by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News broke this story, followed by numerous lawsuits brought by US state attorneys general, current and former ExxonMobil employees, and others alleging possibly criminal behavior.

The company has rejected these claims as being just “cherry-picked data.” They essentially issued a challenge: read the documents and judge for yourself. So two Harvard researchers, post-doc Geoffrey Supran (an MIT alum and one of Fossil Free MIT’s founders) and Professor Naomi Oreskes, called the bluff.

They applied best-practice social science peer-reviewed research methods to assess ExxonMobil’s climate change communications over the past 40 years. What did they find? A pattern of public deception: ExxonMobil’s public-opinion shaping communications directly contradicting its internal and scientific communications. And solid data to prove their point.

The internal and scientific faces of ExxonMobil expressed over 80% consensus on human-caused fossil-fuel driven climate change. But ExxonMobil’s public communications, including extensive ads and quasi-opinion pieces in major media outlets, expressed the opposite, with over 80% saying there’s too much doubt, the science isn’t clear, CO2 isn’t the cause. Supran and Oreskes conclude:

"We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists' academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public."

There’s lots more detail and nuance in the paper itself, and a nice two-minute video abstract, published yesterday in the open-access journal Environmental Research Letters




Rick Shankman's picture

Fantastic find Curt!

Fantastic find Curt!

I especially like the following...

"Did Exxon have an agenda for our research? Of course – it’s not a charity."

Now, think about the MITEI and ExxonMobil as a founding member!

"I have a unique perspective – because I was there....

From 1995 to 1997, Exxon provided partial financial support for my master’s thesis, which focused on methane chemistry and emissions....

On a molecule-by-molecule basis, methane absorbs about 35 times more of the Earth’s heat than carbon dioxide. Methane has a much shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide gas, and we produce a lot less of it, so there’s no escaping the fact that carbon has to go. But if our concern is how fast the Earth is warming, we can get a big bang for our buck by cutting methane emissions as soon as possible, while continuing to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels long-term...."

Now consider, MIT CUP wants to build a methane-burning power plant on campus, while partnering with the methane company to help distribute methane to more businesses in the area around campus - so they too can burn more methane.

"The only requirement was that a journal article with an Exxon co-author pass an internal review before it could be submitted for peer review, a policy similar to that of many federal agencies.

Did I know what else they were up to at the time? I couldn’t even imagine it."

Does MIT know what our Big Oil friends on campus are up to?

"Fresh out of Canada, I was unaware that there were people who didn’t accept climate science – so unaware, in fact, that it was nearly half a year before I realized... that Exxon was funding a disinformation campaign at the very same time it was supporting my research on the most expedient ways to reduce the impact of humans on climate."

Funding research to reduce anthropogenic climate change while simultaneously funding a disinformation campaign aimed at undermining her funded research and its conclusions.

"Yet Exxon’s choices have contributed directly to the situation we are in today, a situation that in many ways seems unreal: one where many elected representatives oppose climate action, while China leads the U.S. in wind energy, solar power, economic investment in clean energy and even the existence of a national cap and trade policy similar to the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill of 2009....

Are we willing to accept financial support that is offered as a sop to the public conscience? 

The concept of tendering literal payment for sin is nothing new. From the indulgences of the Middle Ages to the criticisms some have leveled at carbon offsets today, we humans have always sought to stave off the consequences of our actions and ease our conscience with good deeds, particularly of the financial kind. Today, many industry groups follow this familiar path: supporting science denial with the left hand, while giving to cutting-edge research and science with the right....

The Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University conducts fundamental research on efficient and clean energy technologies – with Exxon as a founding sponsor. Philanthropist and political donor [MIT's very own] David Koch gave an unprecedented US$35 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 2015, after which three dozen scientists called on the museum to cut ties with him for funding lobbying groups that “misrepresent” climate science. Shell [coming to MIT for a "fireside chat" next month] underwrote the London Science Museum’s “Atmosphere” program and then used its leverage to muddy the waters on what scientists know about climate. 

It may be easy to point a finger at others, but when it happens to us, the choice might not seem so clear. Which is most important – the benefit of the research and education, or the rejection of tainted funds?...

What are we as academics to do? In this open and transparent new publishing world of ours, declaration of financial supporters is both important and necessary. Some would argue that a funder, however loose and distant the ties, casts a shadow over the resulting research. Others would respond that the funds can be used for good. Which carries the greatest weight?

After two decades in the trenches of climate science, I’m no longer the ingenue I was. I’m all too aware, now, of those who dismiss climate science as a “liberal hoax.” Every day, they attack me on Facebook, vilify me on Twitter and even send the occasional hand-typed letter - which begs appreciation of the artistry, if not the contents. So now, if Exxon came calling, what would I do?... I admire one colleague’s practical response: to use a Koch-funded honorarium to purchase a lifetime membership in the Sierra Club. 

.... As academics and scientists, we have some tough choices to make; and only by recognizing the broader implications of these choices are we able to make these decisions with our eyes wide open, rather than half shut."

Time for MIT to open its eyes.

Rick Shankman's picture

ExxonMobil issued the

"ExxonMobil issued the following statement today regarding the release of a study, Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014), by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes:

ExxonMobil acknowledges the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action. 

The study was paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against the company. It is inaccurate and preposterous....

We support the Paris climate agreement and are members of the Climate Leadership Council, which advocates for a revenue-neutral carbon tax."

See... Comments section...

"Speaking of the "Climate Leadership Council...

The Climate Leadership Council's Devious Plan To Distract American Carbon Consumers

Ellen R. Wald, writing for Forbes

Founding businesses include oil companies ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell , Total and BP . Non-energy companies include General Motors, Pepsi and Santander. Founding individuals include Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York; Steven Chu, a former Energy Secretary in the Obama Administration; Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, and venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. The website lists the “Distinguished Co-Authors of Carbon Dividends Plan,” the CLC’s founding document, as James A. Baker III and George P. Schultz, both former U.S. Secretaries of State and 87 and 96 years old, respectively.

If it was not understood from the CLC’s own description, the purpose of this coordination of the powerful is to advocate for a carbon tax. This tax would be in lieu of environmental regulations...."

Rick Shankman's picture

Considering the above, I get

Considering the above, I get a real kick out of this...

"ExxonMobil joins MIT Energy Initiative as founding member

Company to invest $25 million over the next five years to support faculty and student energy research.

MIT Energy Initiative 
November 3, 2014

The MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) welcomed ExxonMobil as a founding member during a signing ceremony on Friday, Oct. 31. The collaboration will be aimed at improving and expanding renewable energy sources and finding more efficient ways to produce and use the conventional energy sources we depend on today.

At the ceremony, MIT President L. Rafael Reif emphasized the important and valued relationship MIT has with industry.

“Partnerships with industry are critical to our ability to create positive change,” Reif said at the ceremony, evoking MIT’s “mind and hand” motto that stresses the Institute’s endeavor to apply scientific and technical knowledge to real-world problems. He said that we learn from industry “customer needs, problems in the field, and opportunities for new technologies. … We transform what we learn into new solutions, ready to move from the lab to the market.”

While the MIT and ExxonMobil relationship dates back to as early as 1919, Reif and others acknowledged that this agreement represented a new chapter — one that increases the scope, breadth, and depth of their collaboration."