Harvard scientists took Exxon's challenge; found it using the tobacco playbook

A new study finds a stark contrast between Exxon’s research and what the company told the public.

“Read all of these documents and make up your own mind.”

That was the challenge ExxonMobil issued when investigative journalism by Inside Climate News revealed that while it was at the forefront of climate science research in the 1970s and 1980s, Exxon engaged in a campaign to misinform the public.

Harvard scientists Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes decided to take up Exxon’s challenge, and have just published their results in the journal Environmental Research Letters. They used a method known as content analysis to analyze 187 public and internal Exxon documents. The results are striking:

*In Exxon’s peer-reviewed papers and internal communications, about 80% of the documents acknowledged that climate change is real and human-caused.
*In Exxon’s paid, editorial-style advertisements (“advertorials”) published in the New York Times, about 80% expressed doubt that climate change is real and human-caused.

Merchants of Doubt
As Oreskes documented with Erik Conway in Merchants of Doubt, tobacco companies and several other industries that profited from harmful products engaged in decades-long campaigns to sow doubt about the scientific evidence of their hazards. As one R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company 1969 internal memo read:

“Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public”

The results of this new paper show that Exxon followed this same playbook. While the company’s internal communications and peer-reviewed research were clear about human-caused global warming, its public communications focused heavily on sowing doubt about those scientific conclusions.

For example, Exxon scientist Brian Flannery co-authored a chapter of a 1985 Department of Energy report with NYU professor Martin Hoffert concluding that in a “Low CO2” emissions scenario, humans would cause about 2°C global surface warming above pre-industrial levels by 2100, and about 5°C in a “High CO2” scenario. These projections were in close agreement with those in the latest IPCC report nearly 30 years later.

Yet in a 1997 advertorial in the New York Times opposing the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon argued:

“Nations are being urged to cut emissions without knowing either the severity of the problem – that is, will Earth’s temperature increase over the next 50–100 years? – or the efficacy of the solution – will cutting CO2 emissions reduce the problem?”

The advertorial included a misleading graph showing that human activities only account for 3–4% of global carbon dioxide emissions – misleading because the natural carbon cycle is in balance. Earth naturally releases a lot of carbon, but absorbs just as much. Human emissions disrupt that balance and hence are responsible for the entire increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

In another advertorial published in 2000 to raise doubts about a National Research Council climate report, Exxon talked about:

“these still-unanswered questions (1) Has human activity already begun to change temperature and the climate, and (2) How significant will future change be?”

That advertorial included a misleading chart of Sargasso Sea Temperature often used by climate deniers because it gives the appearance that current temperatures are lower than they have been over most of the past millennium. The chart is misleading for two reasons: the Sargasso Sea is one isolated geographic area that doesn’t accurately represent the entire planet, and the data shown on the graph ends roughly a century ago, excluding most human-caused global warming.

Crucially, Exxon’s own climate science research answered these questions 10–20 years before the company published the misleading advertorials. The scientific evidence clearly indicated that by burning fossil fuels like those sold by Exxon, humans were increasing carbon dioxide levels, which were causing global warming, and that this would continue until we stop adding more carbon pollution to the atmosphere.

These were the conclusions of 80% of Exxon’s peer-reviewed research and internal communications, and yet 80% of its advertorials aimed at the public were filled with expressions of doubt and misleading statements and charts that would make today’s climate deniers proud. Doubt was their product, and Exxon has peddled it fiercely.

The Lawsuits Have Begun

This study comes as ExxonMobil already faces numerous investigations by state attorneys general and class action lawsuits. One lawsuit accuses Exxon of misleading its investors and inflating its stock value by making false statements about the value of its oil reserves (much of which must be stranded if we’re to meet international climate targets), and about how climate policies will impact the company’s finances.

The attorney general of the Virgin Islands is investigating Exxon for potentially violating the territory’s anti-racketeering law. New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman is also investigating whether Exxon lied to the public and its shareholders about the risks of climate change and the potential effects on the company’s finances. Massachusetts attorney general Maura Healey is pursuing a similar investigation to determine whether Exxon deceived the public and investors about climate change risks.

By showing that Exxon systematically misled the public by following the tobacco industry playbook, the new Harvard study will undoubtedly bolster these cases.

Exxon’s Defense is Hollow

In its defense, Exxon spokespeople have asserted that the company didn’t suppress or try to hide its climate science research. While that’s generally true, it’s also true that Exxon’s public statements painted a very different picture about our understanding of human-caused global warming than the company’s scientific research and internal communications. The vast majority of those paid statements were aimed at manufacturing doubt, and often included the same misleading myths and charts that can be found on any run-of-the-mill climate denial blog.

Exxon’s scientists published some valuable climate research. Company officials discussed those findings internally. But in its public communications, Exxon officials decided to follow the tobacco industry playbook – claim that the science remains unsettled in order to undermine regulations and prevent a decline in public consumption of their dangerous products.

The tobacco industry was eventually found guilty of racketeering. Considering the findings of this new study, ExxonMobil may face a similar fate.

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