New Harvard study finds ExxonMobil misled public about climate change for decades

August 24th, 2017

The petroleum giant ExxonMobil deliberately misled the public about the causes of climate change and its implications for the past 40 years.

That is the conclusion of a study just published in Environmental Research Letters by renowned Harvard science historian, Professor Naomi Oreskes and her colleague Dr. Geoffrey Supran.

The Harvard researchers analysed 187 climate change communications issued by the company over a 40-year period between 1977 and 2014. They also analysed 36 editorial-style advertisements, or ‘advertorials’, published in the New York Times between 1989 and 2004.

The study found that, while ExxonMobil progressed climate science and recognized the human cause and dangers of climate change in internal and academic circles, they deliberately promoted doubt and uncertainty to the public.

Exxon dared, Harvard accepted

To place this study in context, we should rewind briefly to late 2015 when Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times broke stories about their separate investigations into ExxonMobil. They found that the company – formed in 1999 by the merger Exxon and Mobil – manufactured doubt about climate change and fed this to the public for decades.

In the ensuing media storm, the company responded in a blog post, charging Inside Climate News and the LA Times with cherry-picking information and confidently daring the public to “read all of the documents and make up your own mind”.

Unfortunately for them, Oreskes and Supran took up the challenge and yesterday published the first peer-reviewed, comprehensive and quantitative analysis of Exxon’s climate communication history. According to their findings, 83 per cent of the academic publications and 80 percent of the internal documents acknowledged that climate change was real and that humans were the root cause.

This trend was reversed when Exxon dealt with the public at large – 81 per cent of its advertorials published in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times expressed doubt over climate science and whether human activity was to blame. Just 12 per cent of the adverts actually affirmed the science.

In a recent letter to the New York Times, Oreskes and Supran stated that ExxonMobil “contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it”. In response to the charge of bias and cherry-picking information, they used the best available techniques and were subjected to rigorous peer-review by independent experts.

“We used established social science methods and subjected our analysis to peer review, to verify that our claims are supported by evidence, were analysed according to tested methods and are not just a matter of opinion,” Oreskes and Supran said in the NYT letter.

‘Big Oil’ takes a leaf out of ‘Big Tobacco’s’ playbook

Prof Oreskes is an expert in understanding scientific consensus and dissent and how large corporations have historically been adept at using doubt as a product to ensure continued profits.

She co-authored the award-winning book ‘Merchants of Doubt’, which showed that petroleum companies used similar tactics that the tobacco and chemical industry used to quell public and scientific concern over their products.

In relation to Exxon’s communication strategy, Prof Oreskes said: “It was pretty clear that their strategy was the same as tobacco’s. Delay looked to them as a smart business choice.”

Tobacco industry scientists and executives knew by the early 1950s that smoking caused cancer but decided to deceive the public for as long as possible to continue making profits. “They [the tobacco industry] resolved on a long-term effort to create doubt about that science.” writes David Kaiser and Lee Wasserman in the New York Review of Books.

By funding their own scientists and research, the tobacco industry manufactured an artificial debate that worked for decades right up until the major court cases of the 1990s, and cost countless lives.

Rising pressure on Exxon

While the company attempted to allay public and media concerns ever since the 2015 revelations, the hole that ExxonMobil has dug itself into has deepened even more. Last year the Rockefeller Family Fund – the same Rockefeller family that made much of their wealth from petroleum – announced it would gradually divest its holdings in fossil fuel companies.

The reason they gave – ExxonMobil’s “morally reprehensible conduct”.

Following the publication of the stories by LA Times and InsideClimateNews, New York Attorney General (AG) Eric Schneiderman started an investigation into whether ExxonMobil had committed fraud by failing to disclose the business risks of climate change to its shareholders in light of the evidence that it understood those risks internally.

The AG in Massachusetts, California and the Virgin Islands soon commenced similar investigations and many more state AGs are considering it. The Securities and Exchange Commission – an independent agency that regulates the US stock market and protects investors – are also looking into the company’s business practices.

Late in 2016, ExxonMobil shareholders did sue ExxonMobil over the aforementioned undisclosed climate change risks and the company’s stranded assets – fossil fuels that may shortly become worthless if the world commits to carbon emissions reductions. In May of this year, two-thirds of shareholders also went against ExxonMobil’s senior management by voting to force the company to publish an annual report on its climate impacts.

Two months later, three communities in California filed a lawsuit against 37 of the world’s major petroleum companies, including ExxonMobil, seeking compensation for the current and future costs of adapting to sea level rise caused by climate change.

A number of former employees having recently filed a lawsuit claiming they were deceived into making false and misleading statements about the risks of climate change.

Exxon’s short-term gain, our long-term loss

The world’s governments should and could have acted on climate change decades ago and Exxon knew this. As Exxon scientist James Black wrote in 1978: “Man has a time window of five to ten years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical.”

That was the golden moment to start making clear steps to reduce carbon emissions and gradually transition to a clean energy economy. Instead in 2017, it is all about damage limitation and drastic action in a last ditch effort to keep global temperatures within a 2 degrees Celsius increase over the coming decades.

Millions of people, particularly the world’s poorest, will have to face the harsh realities as a result of our inaction.

As Kaiser and Wasserman write in their New York Review of Books article: “The reason the world has failed to act for so long is in no small part because the climate denial campaign that Exxon helped devise and lead was so successful.”

ExxonMobil has yet to respond publicly to this latest controversy to fall at their doorstep.

About the Author

Shane O'Reilly

Shane is a contributor to the Green News. He is an environmental research scientist, based in University College Dublin and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He earned his PhD in environmental chemistry from Dublin City University.

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