ExxonMobil, the world’s largest publicly traded international oil and gas company, is the focus of a recently published study by Harvard University claiming that the company misled the public regarding the existence of climate change. The Harvard researchers who conducted the study, Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran, published their peer-reviewed findings in both the journal Environmental Research Letters and in an opinion article in The New York Times.
Suspicion surrounding ExxonMobil’s stance on climate change was prevalent years before. In 2015, InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times conducted investigations into ExxonMobil. InsideClimate News interviewed former ExxonMobil employees, scientists and federal officials, among others, and scanned hundreds of pages of internal documentation.
According to Scientific American, the former employees discovered that ExxonMobil was aware of climate change as early as July 1977, when the publication’s senior scientist, James Black, made a presentation to the management committee.
Black said, “In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is in influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels.”
After a year, he warned ExxonMobil that if the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled, the average global temperature would rise by 2 to 3 degrees, a number the scientific community is still in consensus with today. Black suggested that it would only take a few years before a serious change in energy strategy would become necessary, and that ExxonMobil should prepare to act.
The investigation’s conclusion was that ExxonMobil had known about the risks that climate change posed for a long time, but denied its existence in public. ExxonMobil claimed that the allegations the report brought up were false, and that it relied on “cherry-picked” statements, according to The New York Times.
The Harvard researchers who conducted the 2017 study reviewed more than 200 documents comprising ExxonMobil’s research and public statements. They found that ExxonMobil’s climate change studies, from the years 1977 to 2014, were in line with scientific consensus at the time.
ExxonMobil most likely knew about the dangers of climate change because it has always been on the forefront of climate change science. For example, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, ExxonMobil “employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched a research program that empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models,” according to Scientific American.
The company contributed research to the field, internal articles and memos acknowledging the threat that global warming presented. According to The New York Times, around “80 percent of the company’s research and internal communications acknowledged that climate change was real and was caused by humans.”
However, the Harvard study revealed that a disparity exists between what ExxonMobil has discussed in private and what the company presented to the public.
According to The New York Times, the company’s research was highly technical and difficult to understand for laypeople. It was also either kept within ExxonMobil or reported only in academic publications accessible via a paywall.
In contrast, the advertisements ExxonMobil ran in The New York Times discussing climate change, which may have reached millions of readers, focused on discrediting the field.
The advertisements emphasized scientific uncertainties about climate change and promoted information that was inconsistent with the established view of most climate scientists at the time.
In other cases, they presented data in a misleading way. ExxonMobil even paid for advertisements that sometimes conflicted with research the company had published in the same year.
Not only did ExxonMobil refuse to publicly acknowledge climate change’s existence, but it actually spread false information about the subject.
Thee Harvard researchers came to the conclusion that “ExxonMobil contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it.” Scott Silvestri, an ExxonMobil spokesman, denied the study’s claims, calling it “inaccurate and preposterous.”
ExxonMobil has stated that the Harvard study was paid for and written by activists who are leading a campaign against the company, according to CNBC.
Besides the Harvard study, numerous other investigations have opened up surrounding ExxonMobil in recent years.
The New York and Massachusetts attorneys general are investigating whether the company may have “violated racketeering, consumer protection or investor protection statutes,” according to The New York Times.
The Securities and Exchange Commission is also asking Exxon Mobil about its policy of not writing down the value of its oil reserves, as other companies do.