An analysis of ExxonMobil's climate change communications shows that the world's largest oil and gas company misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications for nearly forty years, two Harvard University historians argue in a paper published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
ExxonMobil has called allegations that have emerged in recent years that it misled consumers, shareholders, and the public about the environmental and business risks of climate change — allegations that have led to lawsuits and investigations by two states attorneys general — false and "deliberately cherry-picked," and has invited critics to "read the documents and make up your own mind." Based on an analysis of a hundred and eighty-seven documents generated between 1977 and 2014, the study, Assessing ExxonMobil's Climate Change Communications (1977–2014), found systematic, quantifiable discrepancies between what Exxon Mobil scientists and executives discussed in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the public.
Postdoctoral fellow Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science, analyzed the documents — publicly available internal company files that led to the allegations; all peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications offered by the company in response; and thirty-six of the company's paid "advertorials" that appeared over a number of years on the op-ed pages of the New York Times — to determine whether they acknowledge or cast doubt on the claim that climate change is "real, human-caused, serious, and solvable." Funded by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and the Rockefeller Family Fund — which helped fund earlier reporting on the company's position by Inside Climate News and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism — the study found that as early as the 1970s, scientific reports and articles by ExxonMobil employees acknowledged that global warming was a real and serious threat, that it could be addressed by reducing fossil fuel use, and that fossil fuel reserves might one day become "stranded assets." According to the researchers, of the 63 percent of the internal documents that took a position with respect to climate change, 80 percent acknowledged that global warming is real and human-caused.
In contrast, ExxonMobil-sponsored advertorials in the New York Times overwhelmingly emphasized scientific uncertainties about climate change and promoted a narrative that at times included explicit factual misrepresentation and was largely inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil's own. Of the 72 percent of advertorials that took a position, 81 percent expressed doubt about climate change being real, human-caused, serious, or solvable.
"In short, Exxon Mobil contributed quietly to climate science and loudly to raising doubts about it," Supran and Oreskes write in an op-ed in the New York Times. "Even while Exxon Mobil scientists were contributing to climate science and writing reports that explained it to their bosses, the company was paying for advertisements that told a very different tale."