The cover-up continues

Exxon launches a new attack on science in order to avoid accountability for climate change.

Climate activists protest on the first day of the Exxon Mobil trial outside the New York State Supreme Court building on October 22, 2019. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images.

In late summer of 2017, Harvard University researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran released one of the most important pieces of climate change research to date. Published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, it showed that for nearly four decades, the oil giant Exxon misled the public about the dangers of climate change.

Oreskes and Supran showed this by analyzing the fossil fuel giant’s own internal and external statements. While about 80 percent of the company’s research and internal communications acknowledged the reality of climate change, they found, about 80 percent of Exxon’s public statements expressed doubt. “Exxon Mobil contributed quietly to the science,” they wrote, “and loudly to raising doubts about it.”

The research was important primarily because of its peer-reviewed status. For the first time, politicians, attorneys and activists looking to hold Exxon accountable for profiting from a deadly crisis could point to rigorously vetted, science-based evidence of the company’s misleading tactics—tactics which had only previously been outlined in journalistic outlets. The paper offered more concrete proof that Exxon had done exactly what the tobacco industry had done: publicly downplayed the dangers of a deadly product while privately acknowledging them, and becoming abundantly wealthy in the process. Lawsuits were about to filed. Lots of them.

Exxon launched a campaign to discredit the findings almost immediately. It accused Oreskes and Supran of making claims they didn’t actually make. It started running ads on Twitter claiming the science had been “manufactured” by political interests. It attempted to smear Oreskes and Supran directly, accusing them of being part of a “political campaign” launched by “extremely well-funded” environmentalists and class-action lawyers trying to destroy the company. Exxon earned $20.8 billion in 2018, and is the 16th most profitable company in the world

It hasn’t been enough to buy silence. Lawsuits against Exxon continue to pile up and progress through the courts. At the same time, more internal Exxon documents leaked earlier this month. They show the company plans to keep increasing its carbon emissions indefinitely, further worsening the climate crisis.

Thus, more than three years later, Exxon’s campaign against the research continues.

Exxon launches new attack on 2017 paper

On Friday, more than three years after Oreskes and Supran’s 2017 paper, Environmental Research Letters published a new comment it—authored by Exxon Vice President of Research and Development Vijay Swarup.

Swarup—who has held his position for more than 30 years, and describes his professional mission as “to ensure worldwide access to energy while minimizing impacts of climate change”—now claims the paper suffers from “at least two methodological flaws:”

First, the authors largely compared data from two different companies who were direct competitors to determine whether there was a discrepancy between them. Ignoring that before 1999 Exxon Corporation and Mobil Oil Corporation were two separate companies, the authors compare the internal documents of one company to the public statements of another in an effort to find discrepancies in the messages conveyed.

Second, the publication assessed only a small subset of available advertorials. The authors note that 'the company [Mobil] took out an advertorial every Thursday between 1972 and 2001' or approximately 1560 times. Yet they chose to review only the 36 advertorials (or less than 3%) that were selected by another entity, Greenpeace, which has a well-documented history of animosity toward ExxonMobil. 

To support his critique, Swarup cited a separate 2018 paper outlining “fundamental” and “fatal” flaws with the original research. That 2018 paper, however, was authored by a paid consultant for ExxonMobil. It was also not published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Oreskes and Supran noted that fact in their peer-reviewed rebuttal, which was also published in Environmental Research Letters on Friday.

Oreskes and Supran’s response

In an op-ed published in The Guardian on Friday, Oreskes and Supran said they were originally not going to respond to Exxon’s new attack. But, when they reviewed it, they realized something interesting: “ExxonMobil, in trying to dismiss our findings, has inadvertently made them stronger.”

First, ExxonMobil has not challenged any of our findings about the 187 documents analyzed in our original study. They do not deny that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil all had early knowledge that their products have the potential to cause dangerous global warming. Nor do they deny that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil all promoted doubt about climate science and its implications in order to delay action.

Second, ExxonMobil accused us of analyzing “less than 3%” of their advertorials. This is misleading: less than 4% of their advertorials concerned climate change; most were irrelevant. Nevertheless, we have expanded our research program to include advertorials of which we were originally unaware, and found that – spoiler alert – “the results strengthen our original finding.”

Third, ExxonMobil claims that our original publication “obscur[ed] the separateness” of Exxon and Mobil prior to their 1999 merger. This is incorrect and misleading: when Exxon and Mobil merged, ExxonMobil inherited legal and moral responsibility for both. Moreover, as we summarize in today’s rebuttal, additional work we have done in response to ExxonMobil’s complaints “further demonstrates that both Exxon and Mobil separately misled the public, and continued to do so once they merged to become ExxonMobil Corp.”

All told, “we can now conclude with even greater confidence that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil Corp have all, variously, misled the public.”

I encourage you to read Oreskes and Supran’s Guardian op-ed in full. It’s a much-needed reminder of the fossil fuel industry’s priorities. Their massive PR campaign to deflect blame for the climate crisis hasn’t stopped for the upcoming election, or the pandemic, or the climate-fueled extreme weather events all over the world. It has only accelerated.

It’s also a timely reminder of the high standard scientists are held to when it comes to public debate, and the relatively low standards their opponents must meet to be deemed worthy of publication.

When Exxon wants to attack science, it simply makes a public comment supported by its own research, which was paid for and published by the company itself. When scientists want to respond, they must submit their comments to rigorous review by groups of strangers with no interest in whether they are right or wrong—much less whether they’re allowed to continue to exist.

Further reading:

  • An important climate lawsuit is headed to the Supreme Court next year. Amy Coney Barrett effectively denied climate change during her confirmation hearings last week—and followed it up by saying “I don’t think that my views on global warming or climate change are relevant to the job I would do as a judge.” This is patently false. Indeed, the Supreme Court is considering an important climate case next year. “The question the high court plans to consider next year is a narrow procedural one,” the Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni reports. “But its answer could have broad implications for a suite of other suits from local governments from Rhode Island to California aiming to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for global warming.”

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