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.