Two-faced Exxon: the misinformation campaign against its own scientists

Investigative journalism by Inside Climate News (ICN) into Exxon’s internal documents revealed that the company was at the forefront of climate research, warning of the dangers posed by human-caused global warming from the late-1970s to the late-1980s. As Harvard climate historian Naomi Oreskes noted,

But Exxon was sending a different message, even though its own evidence contradicted its public claim that the science was highly uncertain and no one really knew whether the climate was changing or, if it was changing, what was causing it … Journalists and scientists have identified more than 30 different organizations funded by the company that have worked to undermine the scientific message and prevent policy action to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Exxon has responded to the ICN allegations by pointing out that over the past three decades, the company’s scientists have continued to publish peer-reviewed climate research.

Our scientists have contributed climate research and related policy analysis to more than 50 papers in peer-reviewed publications – all out in the open. They’ve participated in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since its inception – in 1988 – and were involved in the National Academy of Sciences review of the third U.S. National Climate Assessment Report.

Finally, I’ll note that we have long – and publicly – supported a revenue-neutral carbon tax as the most effective, transparent, and efficient way for governments to send a signal to consumers and the economy to reduce the use of carbon-based fuels.

While the ICN investigation focused on Exxon’s internal reports, Exxon’s spokesman pointed to the peer-reviewed scientific research published by the company’s scientists between 1983 and 2014 – 53 papers in all.

Exxon scientists’ 100% global warming consensus

I reviewed all 53 of the papers referenced by Exxon’s spokesman, and they indeed consist of high-quality scientific research. Most of them implicitly or explicitly endorsed the expert consensus on human-caused global warming; none minimized or rejected it. This means that there is a 100% consensus on human-caused global warming among Exxon’s peer-reviewed climate science research – even higher than the 97% consensus in the rest of the peer-reviewed literature.

Of the 53 papers, 45 were co-authored by Haroon Kheshgi. I spoke to several climate scientists who worked with him and all agree, Kheshgi is a top-notch climate scientist, for example having constructively contributed to the first IPCC reports that identified a human influence on global warming. 

Katharine Hayhoe, one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people, did a summer internship with Kheshgi at one of Exxon’s facilities as part of her masters’ thesis research, and subsequently co-authored a number of papers with him. Hayhoe described her experience with Kheshgi and Exxon,

Haroon himself is an outstanding scientist - careful, detailed, methodical, and committed to doing good science, just as we all are. In my experience with Exxon and with Haroon, I never met a scientist who expressed any opinions counter to those prevalent in the academic community.

Much of Exxon’s early research in the 1980s dealt with climate modeling, for example projecting that the planet’s surface temperatures would warm 3–6°C above pre-industrial levels by the year 2100. Their research has often discussed the dangers associated with this degree of global warming, and many studies published by Exxon scientists investigated the possibility of mitigating climate change by sequestering carbon in the deep ocean.

The peer-reviewed research published by Exxon’s climate scientists was entirely in line with the expert consensus that humans are causing potentially dangerous global warming, and that we need to explore ways to mitigate the associated risks.

Exxon funded climate denial misinformation campaign

While Exxon’s own scientists and research were 100% aligned with the expert consensus on human-caused global warming, the company simultaneously funded a campaign to manufacture doubt about that scientific consensus. 

A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science found that groups with funding from corporations like Exxon have been particularly effective at polarizing and misinforming the public on climate change. Since 1998, Exxon has given over $31 million to organizations and individuals blocking solutions to climate change and spreading misinformation to the public.

Exxon Knew

What #ExxonKnew vs what #ExxonDid. Illustration: John Cook,

Exxon’s funding of the climate misinformation campaign may even have extended further, as a former company executive told the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS),

A former highly placed ExxonMobil executive who requested anonymity told UCS that the company paid out as much as $10 million annually on what insiders called “black ops” from 1998 through 2005, significantly more than what UCS was able to pin down in its 2007 report from company tax records.

After pledging to stop funding these climate denial groups in 2007, Exxon continued to give more than $2.3 million to the American Legislative Exchange Council (Alec) and to members of Congress who denied the expert climate consensus and acted to obstruct climate policies. Exxon also funded outside scientists who published some of the 2–3% of shoddy research that disputed the global warming consensus. For example, Exxon and other fossil fuel companiestogether gave contrarian scientist Willie Soon over $1 million in funding.

Exxon’s two faces

In short, Exxon’s own scientists have been publishing top-notch research on the dangers of human-caused global warming for 35 years, but for the past several decades, the company simultaneously engaged in a multi-pronged campaign to cast doubt on the expert consensus of which its own scientists were part. 

Exxon funded outside scientists to publish shoddy research contradicting that of its own scientists, funded think tanks and other organizations to use that research to manufacture doubt about the consensus, and donated money to politicians and Alec to obstruct efforts to pass critically important climate legislation.

There is a sharp contrast between what Exxon knew and what Exxon did. As Bill McKibben imagined, just think of how the world would be different if Exxon had told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on climate change.

Exxon under investigation

While Exxon has supported climate science and policy in public, the company has engaged in a shadowy misinformation campaign behind the scenes. As a result, there have been increasing calls for a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) investigation into Exxon’s behavior.

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Posted by dana1981 on Wednesday, 25 November, 2015

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