Percentage of ExxonMobil  documents taking each overall position on ExxonMobil (AGW) as (a) real and human-caused, (b) serious, and (c) solvable. For each document category and for all documents that express a position, the cumulative fractions of documents taking that position are shown. Graphic: Supran and Oreskes, 2017 / Environmental Research Letters

By Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran
1 September 2017

(The Los Angeles Times) – In late August, we published the first academic analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of communications on climate change. We published our findings in an open-access, peer-reviewed journal and made our method and evidence transparent and auditable by publishing 121 pages of supplementary materials. The result: a systematic discrepancy between what ExxonMobil scientists communicated in their scientific articles and internal reports, and what the company told the public in “advertorials” — advertisements in The New York Times masquerading as editorials. In other words, our study showed that ExxonMobil misled the public about climate science and its implications for decades.

Reviewing 187 ExxonMobil documents, we found that 83% of peer-reviewed papers authored by ExxonMobil scientists and 80% of the company’s internal communications acknowledged that climate change was real and human-caused. In contrast, only 12% of ExxonMobil’s advertorials directed at the public did so, with 81% instead expressing doubt.

How did the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company respond? With a straw man, a falsehood, cherry picking, and character assassination.

The straw man: ExxonMobil claims that we accused them of hiding or suppressing climate science research, but to quote verbatim from our study, “We stress that the question is not whether ExxonMobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ but rather how they communicated about it.” What our analysis does say — and show — is that ExxonMobil misled the public. On this point the company remains silent.

The falsehood: ExxonMobil says we “have admitted” that our previous “allegations that the company hid its climate science research were wrong.” That’s not true. One journalist asked where he could find the link to the allegations; the answer is he couldn’t because we never made them. ExxonMobil has put words in our mouths and then claimed we retracted them.

Cherry picking: ExxonMobil argues that a handful of sentences within two advertorials undercut our analysis of 187 documents. But those two advertorials were included in our study. This is the kind of cherry picking of which ExxonMobil has repeatedly accused others.

Character assassination: ExxonMobil says we are in it for the money. The fact is, Naomi Oreskes did this work as a Harvard professor, with no additional payment from any source. She has never been on the payroll of any NGO or activist organization. Geoffrey Supran did two months of this work on a postdoctoral salary paid by the Rockefeller Family Fund and 11 more months on his own dime, in parallel with other, funded research projects. And who do you think gets paid more, an oil industry executive or a postdoc? [more]

Yes, ExxonMobil misled the public


ABSTRACT: This paper assesses whether ExxonMobil Corporation has in the past misled the general public about climate change. We present an empirical document-by-document textual content analysis and comparison of 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and paid, editorial-style advertisements ('advertorials') in The New York Times. We examine whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications—specifically, we compare their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt. This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents. For example, accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists' academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public. Our content analysis also examines ExxonMobil's discussion of the risks of stranded fossil fuel assets. We find the topic discussed and sometimes quantified in 24 documents of various types, but absent from advertorials. Finally, based on the available documents, we outline ExxonMobil's strategic approach to climate change research and communication, which helps to contextualize our findings.

Assessing ExxonMobil's climate change communications (1977–2014)

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