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Exxon Mobil 'Misled' Public On Climate Change For 40 Years, Harvard Study Finds

Researchers found a "systematic, quantifiable discrepancy" between what the oil giant said about climate change in private versus what it told the public.

08/24/2017 06:36 EDT | Updated 08/24/2017 08:11 EDT

Exxon Mobil Corp. deliberately deceived the public about the dangers of climate change for four decades, a new Harvard University study finds.

For the peer-reviewed study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters Wednesday, two Harvard researchers analyzed nearly 200 documents related to Exxon Mobil’s climate change communications. The researchers found that America’s largest oil producer had repeatedly made “explicit factual misrepresentations” about global warming in advertisements aimed at the general public, while simultaneously acknowledging its risks behind closed doors. 

“Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications,” study authors Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran wrote in a New York Times op-ed this week. “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.”

The discrepancy, the researchers said, was staggering. About 80 percent of Exxon Mobil’s research and internal memos acknowledged that climate change was real and caused by humans. However, 80 percent of the company’s newspaper ads regarding climate change questioned this fact, the study found.

An internal Exxon Mobil memo penned in 1979, for instance, acknowledged a possible link between fossil fuel combustion and an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. Another memo from 1982 described “potentially catastrophic events” that could arise from climate change, such as the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet.

A peer-reviewed study conducted by Exxon Mobil scientists in the 1990s concluded  “the body of evidence ... now points towards a discernible human influence on global climate.” Another one from 2002 found that limiting atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could be needed to “forestall coral reef bleaching, thermohaline circulation shutdown, and sea level rise.”

But in 1997, the same year that the Kyoto Protocol was adopted, Exxon Mobil released an ad that called the science of climate change “too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil.” A 2000 Exxon Mobil advertorial in The New York Times described climate change as an “unsettled science.”

The oil giant has previously defended itself by saying that it has never “suppressed climate change research.” But Oreskes and Supran said in their study that “the question is not whether Exxon Mobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ but rather how they communicated about it.”

Exxon Mobil’s peer-reviewed studies about climate change weren’t widely distributed or readily available to the general public, while their ads were meant to reach millions, the researchers noted.

The company had “really good scientists,” Oreskes, a history of science professor, told the Times. “That finding then makes the contrast with the advertorials that much more notable.”

Brendan McDermid / Reuters
Darren Woods, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp., has called for a carbon tax since taking over from Rex Tillerson, who left the company to become secretary of state. Exxon Mobil called the Harvard study findings “inaccurate." 

The study comes as Exxon Mobil faces several lawsuits and investigations related to its transparency, or lack thereof, regarding climate science.

Reacting to the Harvard study, Exxon Mobil called the research “inaccurate and preposterous.”  

“Our statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science,” said spokesman Scott Silvestri in a statement, according to Agence France-Presse news agency.

Silvestri added that the researchers had “cherry-picked” data to “attack” Exxon Mobil’s reputation. Speaking to the Times, he highlighted two Exxon Mobil ads that had suggested that climate change “may pose” long-term risks.

The scientists, however, rejected Silvestri’s claim. Supran told AFP that they’d “looked at the whole cherry tree” in their research, including the ads that the spokesman had mentioned.

While Exxon Mobil did publish some ads that suggested potential risks associated with global warming, the “predominant stance taken [in the company’s climate change] advertorials is ‘Doubt,’” said the study, which was funded by the Rockefeller Family Fund. 

Following the publication of the Harvard paper on Wednesday and the related op-ed, the hashtag #ExxonKnew began appearing on social media. The hashtag first gained popularity in 2015 after InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times published reports alleging that the oil had purposefully covered up what it knew about climate change.

Since then, numerous investigations at the state and federal level have been launched and lawsuits have been filed related to whether Exxon Mobil deceived the public or its investors about the risks posed by climate change, both to the environment and to its business. 

Last month, three communities in California sued 37 oil, gas and coal companies including Exxon Mobil, Shell and Chevron for their alleged contributions to sea level rise and for concealing the hazards posed by global warming.

The companies “have known for nearly a half century that unrestricted production and use of their fossil fuel products create greenhouse gas pollution that warms the planet and changes our climate,” the complaint reads. ″They have nevertheless engaged in a coordinated, multi-front effort to conceal and deny their own knowledge of those threats, discredit the growing body of publicly available scientific evidence, and persistently create doubt in the minds of customers, consumers, regulators, the media, journalists, teachers, and the public about the reality and consequences of the impacts of their fossil fuel pollution.” 

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