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

Posted on 25 November 2015 by dana1981

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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Comments 1 to 12:

  1. "Finally, I’ll note that we have long – and publicly – supported a revenue-neutral carbon tax"

    As far as I know, their support for this began in 2007, about the same time they slowed down their denier-funding activity. However, saying "We will support a carbon fee if and only if all the money is returned to us in the form of tax cuts" is hardly a huge step forward. It is unclear as to why any of the money raised from these fees should be used for tax cuts, let alone all of it. The most obvious uses for the money is remediation of the damage caused by polluters and adaption in the case where the damage cannot be prevented.

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  2. Ogemaniac @1, this article suggests Exxon began supporting a carbon tax in 2009 rather than 2007.  More importantly it shows that Exxon does not, in fact, support a carbon tax.  Specifically it states that:

    "Exxon’s political action committee gave nearly $1.2 million to political candidates in the past two years, 93 percent of it to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics."

    The Republican's do not support a carbon tax in any form.  In fact, they near universally oppose any action on climate change other than the slandering of, and inquisitions with regard to climate scientists.  Had Exxon supported a carbon tax, their political spend would have gone to Democrats who would have legislated for that carbon tax.  Instead they nominally supported a carbon tax for PR purposes while doing their best, with their political spend, to ensure that no such carbon tax was implimented.

    As to the form a carbon tax takes, the more revenue neutral it is, the higher the tax can be without adverse effects of the economy.  That means ideally that the revenue from a carbon tax should be returned to citizens in the form of a dividend.  It can be returned as a reduction in taxes, but the purpose of a carbon tax is, in th end, to eliminate all carbon pollution.  If we use the tax to replace other revenues, the effect is in the long term we reduce government income and have a political fight to reintroduce the current taxes again as the revenue from the carbon tax delines.  Carbon taxes could be earmarked for specific expenditures, but that will only add to their cost and reduce their effectiveness unless those expenditures are ones we would be making in any event.  In that case, however, you face the same problem of a diminishing revenue stream as the tax becomes more effective.  Earmarking will also potentially create pressures to decrease the tax if revenue exceeds the cost of the earmarked projects.

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  3. Shi-Ling Hsu's well-written, brief (and occasionally humorous) book, "The Case for a Carbon Tax: Getting Past Our Hang-Ups to Effective Climate Policy" (published 2011, Island Press) provides good reasons why returning the revenue from a carbon tax as a dividend to citizens is a superior policy.

    The international non-partisan volunteer group, Citizens' Climate Lobby, provides much useful information about carbon taxes and their (positive!) effects on emissions, the economy, and public health at its web site.

    One wouldn't be aware of this based on their public statements, but Republican legislators, like Democratic legislators, are becoming increasingly aware of the dangers of climate change and increasingly willing to do something about it. The quiet, informed, behind-the-scenes lobbying done by Citizens' Climate Lobby volunteers in the United States has had a strong influence. I encourage everyone who is able to do so to join Citizens' Climate Lobby and participate in their team efforts. In the United States, this would involve writing letters to editors and Congress people, and visiting Congressional offices. 

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  4. Ogemaniac @#1

    What Tom Curtis wrote about the most favoured form of a carbon tax is correct. Such a system is usually called carbon fee and dividend. Barring admin expenses, all the fees are returned to the population evenly divided up per capita. The net effect is that carbon intensive products and services become more expensive and low carbon ones become relatively cheaper. People would vote for the "good stuff" with their feet and wallets without requiring onerous legislation or developing a guilt complex.

    The fee/dividend is a progressive tax because, generalising, high consuming individuals tend to be wealthier and lower consuming individuals tend to be less well off. Those who choose to live a very sustainable low-energy/carbon lifestyle could even find themselves with an income. Because the fee/dividend does not take money out of the economy, it is seen as very much more beneficial than such as cap and trade systems because money does not disappear in to the black hole of government coffers. Even Republicans and other right wingers are more favourably disposed to this system.


    On another tack, I think the facts in the article could support a more nuanced view than simply one of "Big Oil knew the dangers yet deceitfully sponsored disinformation spreading organisations". While acknowledging that those organisations and politicians that Exxon-Mobil sponsored/still sponsors did, and continue to, spread a lot of mis/disinformation about climate science, that's not all those organisations do. They lobby against taxes, increased regulation and for reduced government interference in corporate affairs. All things that business likes. I think it fair to say that Big Oil may have funded them even if there had never been such a thing as climate science denialism just to get, in their view, the best and easiest ride for their corporation and shareholders.

    Choosing my words carefully, I think that, given the known characteristics of some executives at Board level, whilst they realised that climate science was legit they also (in what they may have rationalised as true "scientific scepticism") may have given the views of fringe scientists such as Lindzen, Spencer, Christy etc some credibility because if Lindzen et al's views on climate sensitivity turned out to be more accurate than the mainstream view in the long run, then their shareholders would never forgive them in future for ignoring possible get-out-of-jail-free cards which could have lead to them all avoiding unecessary losses.

    I personally feel that such a corporate attitude, if it went like I have sketched out, was rather psychopathic inasmuch as if one is faced with a situation in the board room where the consequences of being wrong would be dangerous, not only for the world, but also your corporation, choosing what in effect were delaying tactics based on a hope of a low-probability outcome, given that the consilience of evidence was becoming ever stronger, was reckless - to put it mildly.

    I suspect that the reason Big Oil started to distance themselves from the thinktanks and lobbying organisations round about 2007, was that they had received advice from their legal advice teams that if they continued to support those lobbyists as much, they could render themselves liable to the mother of all class action lawsuits in the future, as climate change started to kick in badly. Big Fossil Fuel distanced themselves from the climate denialism and pathological scepticism that parts of those quite large lobbying organisations promulgated, but it is arguable that the Board would still want to have the other services of those organisations to continue to campaign for business freedom and against more Big Government.

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  5. This article, and many other reports of deliberate unacceptable actions that clearly have been taken in the hopes of delaying the global development of the better understanding of what is going on and the required changes, address 'generalized groups' or the 'fronts of the action' because of the difficulty identifying the trouble-makers hiding within such organizations or trying to influence the actions of other 'poster-fronts' like Willie Soon.

    'Exxon' did nothing. Some 'powerful people able to influence Exxon leadership or within Exxon' did many unacceptable things hoping to be disguised within Exxon or otherwise be difficult to 'identify as responsible for the unacceptable actions'.

    The same game is played by those unacceptable people trying to pull the strings of other groups like the Tea Party (which include some 'desirable traits' hoped to mask the unacceptable pursuits attempted to be achieved throughh their disguise).

    The legitimate science funded by Exxon is a completely separate matter that was probably hoped to be able to be abused as a mask for the stench of the easily understood to be unacceptable things that some very undeserving wealthy and powerful people hoped to get away with.

    The potential power of deliberately misleading marketing is clearly the biggest threat to the future of humanity. It is a major factor in the promotion and defense of far more unacceptable people than the ones engaged in trying to unjustifiably maximize their personal benefit from the burning of fossil fuels. It is clear that it is specific people behind the actions of organizations (or of others like Willie Soon) who need to be identified and be kept from any further success (and be penalized for any willful deliberate actions they could understand would eventually be understood to be unacceptable. I believe it is fair to argue that every person in a position of leadership, political or business, has no excuse to be less informed that someone like me is about this matter).

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  6. Nick Palmer @4:

    "While acknowledging that those organisations and politicians that Exxon-Mobil sponsored/still sponsors did, and continue to, spread a lot of mis/disinformation about climate science, that's not all those organisations do. They lobby against taxes, increased regulation and for reduced government interference in corporate affairs. All things that business likes. I think it fair to say that Big Oil may have funded them even if there had never been such a thing as climate science denialism just to get, in their view, the best and easiest ride for their corporation and shareholders."

    I think that goes to easy on "Big Oil", not to mention "Big Coal" and "Big Natural Gas".  The reason is that there are sufficiently many think tanks, and they are easy enough to establish, that fossil fuel corporations could easily have funded think tanks that pursued those other ends, while being realists with regard to global warming.  There choice not to do so, therefore, is a choice to fund global warming denialism.  They may not have had a similar choice with regard to the US Chamber of Commerce and other round table lobby groups, but could clearly have articulated a distinct position when the US Chamber of Commerce made remarks depreciating the science of climate change.  They could also have lobbied strenuously internally to such organizations for a realistic (not pragmatic) approach.  Again failure to do so indicates that when such round table lobby groups of which their Corporations were members made statements supporting denialism specifically, of FUD more generally, they spoke for the fossil fuel corporations (ie, the primary beneficiaries of such FUD).

    Note that since 2009 (or 2007?), Exxon gets a pass on the second point - they did clearly articulate a realistic view on climate change regardless of the articulated views of any round table lobby groups of which they were members, but they continued to fund think tanks and politicians who articulated denier viewpoints on climate change when otherwise 'business friendly" alternatives existed.

    The strategy appears to be one of delaying action while taking sufficient action to create plausible deniability that that was their strategy, thereby affording them legal protection.

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  7. OPOF @5:

    "'Exxon' did nothing. Some 'powerful people able to influence Exxon leadership or within Exxon' did many unacceptable things hoping to be disguised within Exxon or otherwise be difficult to 'identify as responsible for the unacceptable actions'."

    There is no such thing as an "unacceptable person".  Only unacceptable actions.  In other respects I entirely agree with your excellent comment.

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  8. Tom: I didn't mean to imply the Exxon's claims about supporting a carbon tax are genuine - they are not. But claiming to support a "revenue neutral" carbon tax is pretty common among corporations and moderate Republicans. Of course, what they mean by this is that not only does all of the carbon tax revenue get diverted to tax cuts, but in order to garner corporate support, it would have to be focused on tax breaks they prefer, such as corporate rate reductions, lower capital gains, etc.

    A carbon tax is actually a fee, not a tax, as it is something that is charged based on use of a public service or public property. Fees are typically NOT put into the general pool, let alone used for tax cuts. They are used to fund the maintenance and provision of the service or property that generated the fee, or closely related items. Gas "taxes", national park entrance fees, automobile registration fees and patent application fees are all examples of how this works. In principle, all of the carbon tax should be used for mitigation and adaption. There is no reason to connect them to tax cuts at all other than as a concession to the GOP. In that case, however, this should not be your starting position in the negotiation. If you start by backpeddling from your own 20, the other team is going to have a touchdown before you know it.

    What would be just in this case? The punishment of gross polluters and not only a forward-going carbon fee but a retroactive one that forced polluters to compensate for their past activity, with interest and penalty. Start with something strong, and you can end with something more reasonable, like splitting the carbon tax three ways between tax cuts, deficit reduction, and spending on adaption/mitigation, with the tax cuts being a per-capita dividend rather than rate cuts which would effectively give the overwhelming majority of the cuts to a very small number of people, even though they money supporting such cuts was generated by property we all own equally.

    Exxon, I suppose, would go along with a carbon tax in return for a big fat corporate rate cut. But it doesn't deserve one, and we certainly shouldn't be offering one unless we get concessions in return.

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  9. It's about who's in charge. Fossil fuel providers give the economy a baseline of dependability. They are an institution in more than a few ways.

    The markets obviously reward their endevours but the palms of industry must be greased and the more intervention into the market ideal means changing the core it's built around is going to get ever more complicated.

    Why would an institution argue for its own demise? Governments invited the fossil fuel providers to provide goods and services to the people and apart from being a tax base they also enjoy the baseline of activity- and therefore lack of anarchy- they provide.

    Governments are hamstrung: they can't just let billions of people fall into unemployment; economies stand up by virtue of fossil fuels; and they stand up by being fed incentives.

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  10. Bozzza @9 : [quote] "The markets obviously reward their endevours [sic] but the palms of industry must be greased and the more intervention into the market ideal means changing the core it's built around is going to get ever more complicated."

    ~ My apologies, Bozzza . . . but owing to my minuscule brain and/or lack of sufficient coffee, it seems your sentence [above] is not making much sense. Please trouble yourself to expand on the ideas you are wishing to present. We are already living in a highly complex as well as highly "complicated"  [  :-)  ] society . . . and we need to do a far better job of navigating somewhere safely between clumsy over-regulation and clumsy "market failure".

    And (as OnePlanetOnly is quick to point out) recent decades of general world-wide deterioration have resulted from an extensive amount of market failure. As he also points out: moral failure leads to market failure. A tendency of human nature, alas.

    [quote] "economies stand up by virtue of fossil fuels" [unquote] . . . is another such comment needing expansion. Perhaps you meant: "economies in the previous century stood up by virtue of fossil fuels" . . . for surely you were not intending to mean that the 21st Century world economy must necessarily and unavoidably "stand up by virtue of fossil fuels" into the foreseeable future ??

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  11. Tom Curtis @#6

    Believe me, I don't want to  go "to easy on "Big Oil", not to mention "Big Coal" and "Big Natural Gas"."  But I also think there is dangers in people going too hard on them. There are plenty of articles over demonising them popping up every day now but I think these often tend to go over the top. I take your point that Big Oil may have been able to find freemarket lobby groups and think tanks that did not support denialism  and obfuscation - but that might have been hard, or impossible.

    Realistically, just about all freemarket organisations have varying degrees of right wing ideology "under the hood" and, at least in the US,  that has been strongly associated with denialism and anti climate science propaganda. I don't think there would have been a climate friendly substitute for the likes of ALEC etc to be found.

    I envisage that there may have been boardroom battles between the corporate psychopaths and those who care for their grand children and rather than blanket RICO like legal attacks against whole corporations, I would like to see subpoenas and FOI requests for the minutes of, and transcripts of those meetings so any guilty personalities could be outed.

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  12. Tom Curtis,

    I agree that generally is it inappropriate to refer to a person as being 'unacceptable'. However, I believe a person who has a history of deliberately pursuing unacceptable actions deserves the label. If they change their mind the label would no longer apply. As long as they persist in trying to get away with unacceptable actions 'they are unacceptable', or perhaps more correctly 'not deserving of acceptance'.

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