Mixing the message

ExxonMobil funds a wide assortment of supposedly independent and non-profit organisations and think tanks. Some are well known conservative organisations like the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, and the Heartland Institute, which are known for their opposition to regulatory action on greenhouse emissions and other environmental standards.

But there are other organisations that were  set up specifically to counter the mainstream scientific evidence that climate change is primarily caused by anthropogenic  emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases. In this group, we find the American Council for Capital Formation Center for Policy Research, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, the International Policy Network and other obscure but impressive-sounding centers and ‘institutes’ that provide erroneous, contrarian, and misleading information on global warming.[1]  

Science fact or science fiction?

By generously funding a network of organisations all publishing inaccurate and misleading information about climate change, and citing each other’s work and in-house ‘scientists’, ExxonMobil created the impression that there was a substantial body of scientific evidence and opinion which disagreed with mainstream climate science and the findings of the IPCC Assessment Reports. The articles presented as scientific papers are never peer-reviewed or published in well-established journals like Science or Nature. The result is media coverage of seemingly contradictory evidence and disingenuous arguments that inevitably lead to uncertainty and doubt about the validity of the consensus among the majority of scientists.

ExxonMobil was careful not to be too closely associated with these fake institutions. And in another clever move, the company funded genuinely independent academic research groups to continue researching the science.  For instance, ExxonMobil’s corporate citizen report for 2005 states:

Our climate research is designed to improve scientific understanding,  assess policy options, and achieve technological breakthroughs that reduce GHG emissions in both industrial and developing countries. Major projects have been supported at institutions including the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Battelle pacific Northwest Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon, Charles River Associates, the Hadley Centre of Climate Prediction, International Energy Agency Greenhouse Gas R&D Programme, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University , Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Princeton, Stanford, the University of Texas and Yale.[2]    

There is no reason to believe that the statement above isn’t true.  It bolsters ExxonMobil’s corporate image as a responsible supporter of objective scientific research into global warming and climate change.  But these institutions and organisations are not the only ones that the oil company supports.

The obfuscation of science

The resulting cacophony of conflicting evidence and contradictory ‘science’ leads to the required result: uncertainty, doubt, fatigue with the issue, and little or no inclination by policymakers to introduce effective regulatory measures to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and the other greenhouse gases. 

ExxonMobil also sent out different messages to different social groups. In internal documents and scientific papers, the company tended to be more honest in its assessment of the evidence and in its characterisation of the science.  But for the general public the message was different. In a series of weekly advertorials the company ran in the New York Times from 1972 to 2001—seen by several million people each time, the content was skewed towards expressions of doubt. In other words, ExxonMobil contributed to climate science–while at the same time, loudly raising doubts about it.[3]

ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives were generally aware of, and accepted, the evolving climate science from the 1970s onward—but they painted a different picture in the company’s advertorials. The majority of ExxonMobil’s peer-reviewed publications acknowledge that climate change is real and human caused.  Exxon’s internal documents reflected the scientific reality. Uncertainties are often mentioned and even highlighted, but usually in the context of broader scientific understandings and are generally consistent with the evolving science. In contrast, ExxonMobil’s advertorials overwhelmingly focus on the uncertainties, casting doubt on the growing scientific consensus. The peer-reviewed publications and the advertorials sometimes contradicted each other even in the same year.[4]

ExxonMobil has made enormous investments in fossil fuels and petrochemicals. It fights hard to protect the future profitability of these investments

The advertorials included several instances of explicit factual misrepresentations. An advertorial in 2000 directly contradicted the IPCC and presented ‘very misleading’ data, according to the scientist who did the analysis.  Another advertorial in 1996 claimed that the warming effect of greenhouse gas emissions could be offset by the cooling effect of other combustion products such as particulates. But this theory had been rejected by the IPCC one year earlier.[5] 

Beware the SCAM

Once again, ExxonMobil was mixing up the message—a tactic for undermining public understanding of scientific knowledge that has been dubbed the Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method or SCAM.[6]

In December 2017, Inside Climate News published an ‘infographic’ called Climate denial: The long campaign of misinformation, which is an amusing and informative summary of the cast of characters in this 70-year campaign by the fossil fuel companies to deny climate change science and to sow doubt and uncertainty where in fact there is none.[7]

The deception continues

It is naïve to believe that the climate change denial campaign is over. At the time of writing this post, there were at least five new paperback books on climate change advertised on Amazon. They all purport to be scientific, but they all dispute the science and deny the evidence for global warming and climate change. Is this part of a new strategy by the fossil-fuel industries and their allies in the petrochemical industries: to dominate the popular press by ‘experts’ who dispute established climate science? 

One clue to their veracity is to look for the way they provide references for their claims. Either there are no references—a sure sign of dubious arguments and dodgy evidence, or the authors reference each other’s work in a sort of inbred cabal of climate deniers.    

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[1] Inside Climate News. How big oil lost control of its climate misinformation machine. Accessed at : //insideclimatenews.org/news/22122017/big-oil-heartland-climate-science-misinformation-campaign-koch-api-trump-infographic/
[2] Ibid
3] Supran S. and Oreskes N. Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977-2014). Environment Research Letters. 12 (2017) 084019.
[4] ibid
[5] ibid
[6] Mentioned in Supran and Oreskes. Op.cit
[7] Inside Climate News: How big oil lost control of its climate misinformation machine. //insideclimatenews.org/news/22122017/big-oil-heartland-climate-science-misinformation-campaign-koch-api-trump-infographic

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