Still Disinforming: ExxonMobil’s Continued Culpability in Climate Denial

Got Science? | May 2016

In addition to its decades-long climate denial campaign, ExxonMobil continues to mislead its investors and the public on climate science, despite public statements claiming that the company now accepts climate change as a reality.
Photo: Roy Luck/CC BY (Flickr)

Several recent headlines have revealed the long history of ExxonMobil’s denial of climate change, namely that the company knew about climate change and its global risks by the late 1970s and maybe even the 1960s.  Indeed, it is truly remarkable that the company was at the cutting edge of climate research when the science was only in its infancy, and yet chose to wage a decades-long disinformation campaign rather than warn the public and its own investors of climate change risks.

This is more than an interesting historical tidbit. ExxonMobil continues to play a role in promoting misinformation about climate change and obstructing efforts to address it. It’s worth reiterating what the oil and petrochemical giant is doing today to impede climate progress.

Exxon hasn’t gotten out of the business of climate denial

While a cursory look at its website shows that ExxonMobil now admits that, “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” the company’s current activities continue to tell a different story. Even if we set aside the long, deceptive history of ExxonMobil’s climate denial campaign, there are many very recent actions that ExxonMobil has taken to misrepresent or undermine climate science, as outlined recently in a well-documented report by MIT and Harvard researchers Ploy Achakulwisut, Ben Scandella, Geoffrey Supran, and Britta Voss. Here’s a sampling of that misinformation, focusing on ExxonMobil statements and actions from 2014 to present.

1. Deceptive public statements

Despite Exxon’s science-supported position statement on climate change on its website, the company continues to spout misinformation on the topic. In a recent post, ExxonMobil Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Suzanne McCarron said the idea that ExxonMobil “reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts” and concealed the information from the public was “preposterous”.

McCarron’s predecessor Ken Cohen made similar statements in a 2015 blog post, “As you can see, the scientific community that contributes to the IPCC report is, even today, still projecting a broad range of potential outcomes.” Further, Cohen notes, “This should refute the claim, central to activists’ conspiracy theories, that anyone had reached a firm conclusion about catastrophic impacts of climate change back in the 1970’s and 80’s.”

To the contrary, scientific consensus on climate change and its impacts has been building since at least the 1970s. Despite extraordinarily broad consensus in the scientific community that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change, the high degree of accuracy with which climate models have predicted current warming, and general agreement in global climate models on future climate scenarios, Cohen here misleadingly overemphasizes the uncertainty associated with global climate modeling in the most recent IPCC assessment. Further, he ignores the fact that climate prediction is primarily dependent on how quickly and how substantially carbon emitters—like ExxonMobil—are required to reduce their emissions in the future.

2. Misleading statements to investors

ExxonMobil is also responding to its own investors’ climate change concerns bydoubling down on its misguided claim that the solutions needed to limit warming to less than 2 degrees are “unlikely” to materialize. Such rhetoric feels conspicuously out of touch in the wake of 175 countries committing to reach this very goal last Month. ExxonMobil’s dismissiveness to shareholder concerns also stands in contrast to commitments made by BP and Shell less than a year ago to improve disclosure of their respective climate risks to shareholders.

Moreover, at the 2015 Annual Meeting of Shareholders, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson overemphasized the uncertainty associated with global climate models to the point of assuming they had no predictive value. As Tillerson stated:

“…It’s interesting that if you examine the most recent publication of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…one of the things we look into carefully every year is, ‘What level of progress has been made in the competency of those models to predict the future?’ And if you look at those reports, what you see is an extraordinarily broad range of predictive outcomes.”

“We don’t really know what the climate effects of 600 ppm versus 450 ppm will be because the models simply are not that good…they will get better…we anticipate, we hope that the competencies of the models begin to close and therefore you can have a higher confidence around the outcome.”

As noted in a recent report by climate researchers at MIT and Harvard, these statements are in direct contrast to the IPCC’s latest assessment, which demonstrates that a world of 450 ppm and one of 600 ppm of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2100 come from distinctly different emissions pathways. In other words, scientists can show that these two concentrations have “substantially different likelihoods of [global temperature] staying below 2°C over the twenty-first century.” Tillerson’s reference to “an extraordinarily broad range of predictive outcomes” falsely implies that the diversity of future scenarios predicted by global climate models is due to model uncertainty. In fact, the diversity of projected climate futures largely reflects different climate action decisions that our society might choose to make (for example, what the future climate will look like with carbon emissions of business as usual, compared to the future climate with a meaningful global agreement that substantially cuts emissions).

3. Funding and membership in organizations that spread misinformation

ExxonMobil continues to play a leading role in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). As explained in the 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists report, The Climate Deception Dossiers, ALEC is well known for peddling disinformation about climate science to its state legislator members, many of whom go on to hold higher offices. Shortly after this report came out last summer, ExxonMobil once againsponsored ALEC’s annual meeting. At one of the few sessions open to reporters, state legislators were told that, “The biggest scam of the last 100 years is global warming.”

ALEC’s controversial positions on climate change have sent other oil majors running for the door, including BP and Shell just last year. Shell’s departure came months after its CEO said, “Let me be very very clear, climate change is real and it’s a threat that we need to act on. We’re not aligning with skeptics.”

Similarly, ExxonMobil claims to support a carbon tax, a policy approach that ALEC opposes. The company has also contributed significant sums of money to members of Congress who are on the record as opposing a climate tax, including one recent donation to Senator James Inhofe—an outspoken climate contrarian who famously stated that “…man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

ExxonMobil needs to prove it is no longer supporting climate denial

We can’t ignore past behavior when assessing the credibility of a company. The burden of proof should be on the company to show their changed behavior. Given ExxonMobil’s rich history of organized and intentionally hidden denial campaigns, the company should demonstrate that it is no longer connected to climate misinformation in order to gain the public’s trust. The ongoing investigations by state Attorneys General will determine if ExxonMobil is responsible for any legal wrongdoing. In the meantime, we know for certain they are responsible for continuing to misrepresent climate science.