Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Harvard Study Finds Exxon Misled Public about Climate Change

By John H. Cushman Jr.
Aug. 22, 2017

A comprehensive, peer-reviewed academic study of ExxonMobil's internal deliberations, scientific research and public rhetoric over the decades has confirmed empirically that the oil giant misled the public about what it knew about climate change and the risks posed by fossil fuel emissions, the authors said on Tuesday.

The paper confirms the findings of a 2015 investigative series by InsideClimate News that was based largely on the company's internal records, and also of independent work published by the Los Angeles Times. That reporting ignited investigations by state attorneys general that are still in litigation.


Across the board, the paper found "a systematic discrepancy between what ExxonMobil's scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles and what it presented to the general public," the authors said.

"ExxonMobil contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it," they wrote.

The authors explicitly rejected Exxon's main defense, which was to claim that journalists were "cherry picking" the company's record and that its positions had always been in step with the state of the science. The company often said that anyone who read the full documentary record would see matters Exxon's way.

The Harvard researchers said their task was to accept Exxon's challenge to review the full record. Among the documents they examined were dozens cited in ICN's work, as well as more than 50 scientific papers Exxon frequently mentioned in its own defense and its issue advertising.


In one finding, they judged that 83 percent of peer-reviewed papers written by company scientists and 80 percent of the company's internal communications acknowledged that climate change is real and caused by humans. But among Exxon's advertisements on the editorial pages of The New York Times, a proxy for communications aimed at a broad public audience, only 12 percent acknowledged climate change as real and human-caused, while 81 percent expressed doubt.


In an interview, Supran said that the company's "pattern of discrepant, misleading climate communication" seems still pertinent today, even though the documents analyzed here dated back many years.

It's not just the dissonance he sees between Exxon's more recent formal endorsement of a carbon tax and the refusal of almost anyone the company supports in Congress to embrace that kind of climate solution.

"The company's apparent acknowledgement of climate science and its implications," he said, "seems dramatically at odds with basically its current business practice."


Supran cited Exxon's push, thwarted by sanctions so far, to drill in Siberia along with the Russian company Rosneft, even though "that oil and gas resource, the largest untapped oil and gas resource left in the entire world, is quantifiably incompatible with holding warming below 2 degrees," the internationally accepted goal.

"In terms of the company's rhetoric and business practices," he concluded, "there is a pattern of discrepancy between what the company says and what the company does."



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.


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:


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