- A new study of ExxonMobil documents shows the company acknowledged the reality of climate change in internal documents and academic papers, but promoted doubt about global warming in public.Exxon publicly posted internal documents to show they were consistent with how they talked about warming in public.A pair of Harvard researchers compared those documents to public statements from the company, and found major discrepancies.
As the hashtag goes, #ExxonKnew.
Two Harvard University researchers said in a study published Wednesday they had collected scientific data proving Exxon Mobil Corp made “explicit factual misrepresentations” in newspaper ads it purchased to convey its views on the oil industry and climate science.
A significant body of investigative reporting has already shown that Exxon – along with other fossil fuel companies – has long been aware of the causes, consequences, and facts related to human-caused climate change. Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes have gone a step further by demonstrating that Exxon acknowledged the reality of climate change in academic papers and internal documents while promoting doubt in public-facing communications.
In an article published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, Supran and Oreskes said they examined 187 documents, including internal memos, peer-reviewed papers by Exxon scientists and New York Times “advertorials” that Exxon paid to have published in the style of opinion pieces. The researchers said they used a social science analysis method to turn statements in the documents into data points that could be counted and compared.
The authors wrote: “Accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science – by way of its scientists’ academic publications – but promoted doubt about it in advertorials.”
The controversy about Exxon’s promotion of public doubt about global warming has plagued Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil. Tillerson has refused to answer questions about whether Exxon intentionally lied to the public and shareholders about the dangers of climate change.
The Harvard researchers wrote that their analysis of the documents makes the answer to that question clear.
“Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public,” they said.
Tillerson may one day be forced to testify about the matter under oath, since New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is currently investigating whether ExxonMobil misled investors about the impact of climate change. According to the Associated Press, Schneiderman’s office has said the investigation already uncovered “Exxon’s significant potential investor fraud.”
The investigation also forced Exxon to acknowledge that Tillerson used the alias “Wayne Tracker” in some internal Exxon email communications.
‘Read the documents and make up your own mind’
Supran and Oreskes said Exxon scientists acknowledged that burning fossil fuels was adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing global temperatures to rise as early as 1979. But the company’s position in newspaper ads consistently asserted doubt about climate science.
Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri said the researchers’ study was “inaccurate and preposterous” and that their goal was to attack the company’s reputation at the expense of its shareholders.
“Our statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science,” he said.
In an interview on Tuesday, Oreskes said the impetus for the study came from Exxon’s responses to reports in InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times in September 2015 and October 2015, respectively, that Exxon’s scientists had long known of the dangers fossil fuels posed to the earth’s climate.
“They accused the journalists of cherry-picking,” Oreskes said of Exxon’s responses. “They also posted a collection of documents on their website. They said ‘read the documents and make up your own mind.’ We thought that was an excellent opportunity.”
Oreskes and Supran pointed to ads such as a 1997 Mobil article that read “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.” A 2000 advertorial said a U.S. government report on climate change put the “political cart before the horse” and was “based on unreliable models.”
In his statement on Wednesday, Silvestri offered two examples from New York Times advertorials that Exxon bought, both published in the year 2000, which he said showed the company did not try to cast doubt on climate change.
“Enough is known about climate change to recognize it may pose a legitimate long-term risk and that more needs to be learned about it,” one statement read.
Yet even today, a number of experts say that money and misinformation campaigns by fossil fuel industry lobbyists are still slowing action on climate change. A 2013 study found that organizations connected to fossil fuel companies have spent almost half a billion dollars on “a deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate.”
Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben recently told Business Insider that these companies are still hindering action on climate.
“It’s still the fossil fuel industry – and a lot of what they do is corruption, that combination of constant disinformation and constant political influence – everyday it keeps us from going as quickly as we need to or as we should,” McKibben said.
(Reuters reporting by Emily Flitter)