A Harvard study released Tuesday analyzed 40 years worth of documents from Exxon Mobil, concluding that the fossil fuel titan has, since 1979, internally acknowledged that carbon emissions are responsible for climate change, even as it has spent thousands over the years publicly denying the global consensus. As internal findings from peer-reviewed research grew more and more conclusive of human-instigated climate change, its public face insisted that climate change research was ambiguous.
From Inside Climate:
In one finding, [the Harvard researchers] 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.
Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes analyzed the positions on climate change taken in 187 ExxonMobil documents from 1977 to 2014, placing them into four categories: peer-reviewed publications, non-peer-reviewed documents, internal documents, and advertorials. The advertorials in places like New York Times and Wall Street Journal expressed clear, consistent skepticism of the prospect of human induced climate change, even as its own peer and non-peer-reviewed research supported it. In the company’s internal documents, senior employees supported these findings, but continued publicly pushing against it.
In an accompanying op-ed for the Times, Supran and Oreskes wrote:
Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications. Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public.
For example, in 1979, an Exxon study concluded that “the increase [in atmospheric CO2] is due to fossil fuel combustion” and the “present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.” Almost 20 years later, Exxon published an ad in the New York Times arguing against the Kyoto Protocol, an international coalition to limit GHG emissions, by writing: “Let’s not rush to a decision at Kyoto. Climate change is complex; the science is not conclusive.”
In fact, between 1989 and 2004, Exxon published 36 such op-eds and advertorials in the Times totaling $1.1 million, each reframing the global consensus on climate change as unsettled and unscientific. Rather than outright denial, these advertorial took tepid “wait and see” stances that cast policy change like Kyoto as reckless.
Exxon Mobil has since pushed back on the findings, saying its ads “have always reflected the global understanding of the issue.”
It should be clear by now that “wait and see” perspectives in prestige publications like NYT are propagandistic, stunting policy initiatives like Kyoto and Paris, and serving only fossil fuel interests: a global crackdown on carbon emissions would hurt Exxon’s bottom line. But, because this is bizarro world, it should be noted that Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson supported the US’s involvement in the Paris Agreement.
Now that Exxon Mobil, which spent decades willfully misleading the public on climate change, is to the left of President Trump, the true danger of climate “ambivalence,” of decrying “overweening scientism” as our president razes environmental protections, should be apparent: it’s anti-science, anti-environment, and an acknowledgement of an utter falsehood—even among its loudest supporters.