Did ExxonMobil Mislead the Public about Climate Warming?

Assertions that ExxonMobil and other companies actively misled the public and investors could have profound consequences when it comes to assessing liability

By Anil Madan

Last week, the Harvard Gazette published an article titled ‘Exxon disputed climate findings for years. Its scientists knew better’ with the subheading: ‘Research shows that company modeled and predicted global warming with ‘shocking skill and accuracy’ starting in the 1970s’.

ExxonMobil: Oil and gas giant ‘misled’ the public about climate change, say Harvard experts. Pic – Chemistry World

The Gazette article is a report on a study published in the Journal Science on January 13, 2023, titled ‘Assessing ExxonMobil’s Global Warming Projections’.

The Gazette reports: “The Harvard team discovered that Exxon researchers created a series of remarkably reliable models and analyses projecting global warming from carbon dioxide emissions over the coming decades. Specifically, Exxon projected that fossil fuel emissions would lead to 0.20 degrees Celsius of global warming per decade, with a margin of error of 0.04 degrees — a trend that has been proven largely accurate.”

Geoffrey Supran, lead author and former research fellow in the History of Science at Harvard is quoted thus: “This paper is the first ever systematic assessment of a fossil fuel company’s climate projections, the first time we’ve been able to put a number on what they knew. What we found is that between 1977 and 2003, excellent scientists within Exxon modeled and predicted global warming with, frankly, shocking skill and accuracy only for the company to then spend the next couple of decades denying that very climate science.”

This is a damning indictment and given that there are lawsuits pending against ExxonMobil and other fossil fuel companies for misleading investors and the public with respect to the impact of their products on climate change, assertions that ExxonMobil and other companies actively misled the public and investors could have profound consequences when it comes to assessing liability.

The statements intrigued me so I thought I would take a look.

Misleading the public

As the Gazette notes, following reports in 2015 of internal documents recording ExxonMobil’s early knowledge of climate science, there has been discussion about just what the company knew and when. ExxonMobil itself disagreed with the press reports and even provided links to internal studies and memos from its own scientists, suggesting that interested parties, i.e., scientists, should read them and make their own assessments. Supran claims to have done exactly that with his co-author Naomi Oreskes, a chaired professor in the History of Science at Harvard. In 2017, the pair published a series of three papers analyzing ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate communications both before and after it merged with Mobil Corporation. Supran claims that he and Oreskes were able to show there was a systematic discrepancy between what ExxonMobil was saying internally and in academic circles versus what they were telling the public. “That led us to conclude that they had quantifiably misled the public, by essentially contributing quietly to climate science and yet loudly promoting doubt about that science,” he said, reports the Gazette.

The abstract of the article in Science lays out the proposition: For decades, some fossil fuel companies denied and tried to convince the public that a causal link between fossil fuel use and climate warming could not be made because the models used to project warming were too uncertain. Supran and Oreskes show that ExxonMobil’s own internal models projected warming trajectories consistent with those forecast by the independent academic and government models. What they understood about climate models thus contradicted what they led the public to believe.

The Science article in the current journal issue and the three analytical papers from 2017 differ in that the former is a more quantitative analysis of graphic, hence numerical, data contained in ExxonMobil’s modeling studies and graphs, whereas the latter analysis from 2017 is more qualitative and subjective in trying to assess the impact of statements made by ExxonMobil. However, there too, the researchers found that when ExxonMobil was using the advertorial (a paid advertisement masquerading as editorial commentary), it was far more likely to be expressing doubt about climate warming than in peer reviewed publications that were subject to more independent scientific scrutiny.

Although the current study pertains to ExxonMobil (and to some extent, Mobil Corporation before it became a part of Exxon Corporation to form the combination now known as ExxonMobil) the numerical and graphic data generated by fossil fuel industry companies had received little attention. The newly uncovered documents include explicit projections of the amount of warming expected to occur over time in response to rising atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. Supran and Oreskes claim that theirs is the first systematic review of climate modeling projections by any fossil fuel interest. And they are surprised by their findings as to what exactly ExxonMobil and its predecessors knew, and how accurate their knowledge proved to be.

Climate projections

Supran and Oreskes claims that their results show that in private and academic circles since the late 1970s and early 1980s, ExxonMobil predicted global warming correctly and skillfully. Their statistical analysis concludes that 63 to 83% of the climate projections reported by ExxonMobil scientists were accurate in predicting subsequent global warming. ExxonMobil’s average projected warming was 0.20° ± 0.04°C per decade, which is, within uncertainty, the same as that of independent academic and government projections published between 1970 and 2007.

Significantly, Supran and Oreskes note that the 2015 uncovering of internal company documents showed that Exxon scientists have been warning their executives about “potentially catastrophic” anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming since at least 1977. Strikingly, they note that researchers and journalists have subsequently unearthed additional documents showing that the US oil and gas industry writ large — by way of its trade association, the American Petroleum Institute — has been aware of potential human-caused global warming since at least the 1950s; the coal industry since at least the 1960s; electric utilities, Total oil company, and General Motors and Ford motor companies since at least the 1970s; and Shell oil company since at least the 1980s.

Readers curious about the deep analysis of ExxonMobil’s internal modeling will find the Science article instructive and illuminating.

It bears noting that the criticism of modeling as being unreliable seems to melt when one considers that ExxonMobil could have changed its internal models to demonstrate more benign results, if that was its intention.

AGW: Real and human-caused

This brings us to the three earlier papers analyzing ExxonMobil’s communications about climate warming. This analysis, because it is more subjective and open to question, is not as impressive. For example, Supran and Oreskes who also authored these papers, agree that ExxonMobil’s peer-reviewed publications overwhelmingly acknowledge anthropogenic global warming (AGW) as real and human-caused. In the non-peer-reviewed publications, for example, they found that only 17% expressed doubt that AGW is real and human-caused.

When it comes to analyzing the qualitative nature of ExxonMobil’s statements, the authors reveal an anti-ExxonMobil bias. They state, for example: “A characteristic example not included in our original dataset is a 2000 ExxonMobil Corp (not Mobil or Exxon) advertorial in the NYT and The Washington Post, in which the company criticized a US National Assessment report on climate change as putting the ‘political cart before a scientific horse’ and being based ‘on unreliable models’ that were ‘not yet capable of predicting Earth’s global climate’. The advertorial was condemned by the former director of the National Assessment Coordination Office: ‘To call ExxonMobil’s position out of the mainstream is… a gross understatement’. Another 2000 ExxonMobil Corp advertorial says that ‘climate change may appear as confusing as a maze’.” The authors leave no room here for the expression of opinion by ExxonMobil even if they may not unfairly characterize ExxonMobil’s position as being out of the mainstream.

The authors also criticize ExxonMobil for advertorials promoting the idea that AGW is unsolvable by present approaches while offering no evidence that there are such solutions. The authors quote a 2008 statement by Rex Tillerson, then CEO of ExxonMobil (later, Trump’s erstwhile Secretary of State): “’…to not have a debate on [AGW] is irresponsible…To suggest that we know everything we need to know about these issues is irresponsible… Anybody that tells you that they got this figured out is not being truthful. There are too many complexities around climate science for anybody to fully understand all of the causes and effects and consequences of what you may choose to do to attempt to affect that. We have to let scientists … continue their investigative work, unencumbered by political influences’.” Frankly, this seems unobjectionable.

Where the authors make a good case is in pointing out that ExxonMobil Corp’s advertorials overwhelmingly take the position of ‘Doubt’ on AGW. The demonstration is statistically sound and suggests a willful corporate attempt to cast AGW as a minor or nonexistent concern.

These papers and articles raise concerns about how this kind of corporate activity should be addressed. Are lawsuits by cities and states seeking damages the right way to go about the problem? And if fossil fuel companies do pay damages to cities and towns, how does this mitigate the effects of their future activities? Is the world in a position to give up the use of fossil fuels? On this score, the authors criticize a 2000 ExxonMobil advertorial stating that the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change involved “highly unrealistic carbon reduction goals” that were “not possible” for the US to meet. Well, ExxonMobil probably has that more right than Supran and Oreskes.

The authors’ conclusion is: “Given these discrepancies it is clear that ExxonMobil Corp misled the public over this period.”

And they amplify their indictment with the assertion that the non-peer-reviewed documents demonstrate that the doubt ExxonMobil Corp expressed in advertorials post-merger was not an unintentional or isolated incident: it was part of the company’s broader public communications effort.

We have surely not heard the last of this and there are more acts of the drama to be played out in the courts.


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 20 January 2023

An Appeal

Dear Reader

65 years ago Mauritius Times was founded with a resolve to fight for justice and fairness and the advancement of the public good. It has never deviated from this principle no matter how daunting the challenges and how costly the price it has had to pay at different times of our history.

With print journalism struggling to keep afloat due to falling advertising revenues and the wide availability of free sources of information, it is crucially important for the Mauritius Times to survive and prosper. We can only continue doing it with the support of our readers.

The best way you can support our efforts is to take a subscription or by making a recurring donation through a Standing Order to our non-profit Foundation.
Thank you.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *