New Evidence: #ExxonKnew

August 24, 2017

History will judge these people harshly.  One of them is currently Secretary of State.

Dana Nuccitelli in the Guardian:

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 analysisto 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.
  • 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.


Temperature increase projected in response to rising carbon dioxide levels. Illustration: Hoffert & Flannery (1985), US Department of Energy report.

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.



11 Responses to “New Evidence: #ExxonKnew”

  1. Ron Voisin Says:

    “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.”

    No…it’s not in balance. The Earth is perpetually in a state of disequilibrium. Every natural source of emission is stimulated by a temperature increase no matter the source of increase.

    Natural carbon emission has steadily climbed since the LIA. This in turn has stimulated increases in natural sinks. During period of a warming Earth the entire carbon flux increases.

    And it just so happens that the atmospheric increase appears to be approximately one-half our current carbon emission.

  2. Ron Voisin Says:

    We continue to be 3-4% of the flux.

    As the atmospheric CO2 has gone from 280 to 400 ppm, we humans have accounted for ~5 of those ppm. Mother Nature produced the other 115 ppm.

    • Plants are on a low-carbon diet, so they aren’t eating as much plant food.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      You’ve misunderstood those complicated charts of how much coal & oil humans and burned and thus you’ve accidentally understated that by ~6000%. Check out the interwebby again and take an adult-education simple-arithmetic class. Arithmetic can be fun. For example, check out this rib tickler from Murray Salby: 9/6=300%.

    • Mother Nature produced the other 115 ppm.

      How could anyone who claims to have an engineering background possibly make such a stupid claim?

      Demonstrating that humans are responsible for *all* of the CO2 increase is an *easy* high-school science homework assignment. And I do mean *easy*.

      Humans have put about 2 trillion metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. An engineering graduate should be able to figure out how to convert that into PPM in the atmosphere without any hand-holding.

      So Mr Voisin, why don’t you give it a try, right here?

      The only skills required are basic high-school “bean-counting” math skills, the ability to read a periodic table of the elements, and the ability to Google up (or calculate an estimate of) the total mass of the Earth’s atmosphere.

      Show us that you are at least minimally competent in basic science and math by performing the above very straightforward computations. And show your work.

      • grindupbaker Says:

        It’s a fun thing to do with the specific CO2 molecules as they cycle back and forth through the ecosphere & the isotopic tracer. It’s irrelevant of course and the flaw of logic is obvious. Murray Salby has a pretty sad attempt at pulling it off in a drivel talk at London University. Its entertaining enough drivel.

  3. Ron Voisin Says:

    While I contemplate your simple-mindedness why don’t you Google “greening of the Earth”.

    There is where you’ll find what became of Ma-natures 115 ppm as well as our 5 ppm contribution.

  4. Naomi Oreskes is one of the cornerstones upon which rests the ‘industry-corrupted skeptics’ accusation. Keep on trotting her name out in major ways like this. Trust me on the wisdom of it. See if you can prompt Rep Don Beyer to arrange for her to testify in front of Congress, I’d be all in favor of that.

    • Given that they make all of the data available for anyone to check for themselves, the authorship of the paper is irrelevant. The supporting information runs to 120 pages, not including the Exxon source documents.

      However if we are going to go by authorship, Naomi Oreskes is a Harvard professor with 70 peer reviewed publications with over 10,000 citations. On average a new peer-reviewed paper citing her work is published every 6 hours.

      You write sarcastic comments on the internet.

  5. BL Brown Says:

    Russell, Naomi is a top-notch, serious scholar working at Harvard; she has published solid work on the history of science (including geology), on the scientific consensus on climate change, and on the history of industrial efforts to deny and muddy the water on pollution/ environmental issues. I’d be happy to see her explain her work to Congress– I think she’d be as good at it as Richard Alley…

    As for why our contribution to CO2 emissions is the problem, the bathtub metaphor might be simple enough for Ron: consider a tub with a tap running continuously and a leaky plug. If the leak matches the input from the tap, the level of water in the tub is constant. If someone starts running a hose into the tub, lo and behold the water level starts climbing. So what’s responsible for the increase in the level? The faucet (which hasn’t changed its output)? Or whoever started running the hose into the tub?

    • metzomagic Says:

      Nice analogy, BL Brown, but the right wing nut job’s ideology prevents them from acknowledging that the hose exists. It’s that simple. Good luck trying to convince them otherwise, no matter how succinctly or eloquently you state your case.

      If some politician promises to cut their taxes, that’s all they hear.

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