How ExxonMobil Corporation misled the public about climate science

ExxonMobil is under threat of litigation by the attorneys general of several states that they “violated, variously, racketeering, consumer protection, or investor protection statutes through their communications regarding anthropogenic global warming (AGW)”, as stated by Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes in their paper Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014) that appeared in the August 23, 2017 issue of Environmental Research Letters (vol. 12 (2017) 084019). Supran and Oreskes show that the internal ExxonMobil documents and research supported and done by ExxonMobil largely supported the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change while their public stance was largely at odds with it.

In the abstract of the paper they describe how the research done by ExxonMobil differed from what they publicly said.

In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt. This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents. For example, 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. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.

In the discussion section of the paper, they explain clearly what ExxonMobil is guilty of concerning anthropogenic global warming.

The question we have addressed in this study is not whether ExxonMobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ ‘withheld it,’ or ‘sought to hide’ it, which is how ExxonMobil has glossed the allegations against it. This is also how the allegations have occasionally been presented in the press. Our assessment of ExxonMobil’s peer-reviewed publications and the role of its scientists supports the conclusion that the company did not ‘suppress’ climate science—indeed, it contributed to it.

However, on the question of whether ExxonMobil misled non-scientific audiences about climate science, our analysis supports the conclusion that it did. This conclusion is based on three factors: discrepancies in AGW communications between document categories; imbalance in impact of different document categories; and factual mispresentations in some advertorials.

Katherine Hayhoe, professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, was at one time funded by ExxonMobil and explains that like other scientists, she was funded for targeted research that was not controversial and thus was unaware of the broader picture of how her work was used. In her case, her work focused on how to reduce methane emissions.

For the gas and oil industry, reducing methane emissions means saving energy. So it’s no surprise that, during my research, I didn’t experience any heavy-handed guidance or interference with my results. No one asked to review my code or suggested ways to “adjust” my findings. 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.

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 I’d married one – let alone 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.

She argues that the current situation poses difficult ethical challenges for scientists.

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.

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?

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.”

Despite the fact that there’s no easy answer, it’s a question that’s being posed to more and more of us every day, and we cannot straddle the fence any longer. 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.

As Oreskes and Erik M. Conway have argued elsewhere in their book and documentary Merchants of Doubt that I reviewed earlier, this is how big-name institutions work. They do not flatly deny the science but they swamp the media with whatever doubts they can create because they know that the public and politicians, when faced with a situation where there seems to be a controversy, tend to favor doing nothing until the issue is ‘settled’. So their goal is simple: make sure the issue never seems to be settled. Given their vast resources and access to the media, they can sow doubt for a long time.


  1. Kwt says

    This behaviour is pretty much the literal definition of a crime against humanity. More so than the metaphorical notion that it is a crime that ought to offend all of humanity. It’s the betrayal of all of the human species for forty pieces of silver.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Re: ESSO
    Given their vast resources and access to the media, they can sow doubt for a long time.

    I would not be too sure about the “long time”. King Oil‘s days look numbered. I don’t expect the oil companies to go the way of the buggy whip manufacturers but it looks like they are on their way to a much reduced stature in the world. Renewable energy and the advent of practical electric vehicles are going to have huge effects on their markets.

    I think we are going to see the oil industry go from the elephant in the room to a wolverine in very little time. I would have said said “lamb” but wolverine seems more appropriate.

    When the United Arab Emirates are making impressive investments in solar power, it may just be a hint that the oil industry may be worried.

    Just as one should not be making long-term investments in Florida ocean front property, I’d suggest not adding oil company stocks to a long-term investment strategy. And don’t advise any young man or woman to go into auto mechanics!

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