Harvard Study Confirms: #ExxonKnew and Misled Public About Climate Threat for Decades

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Harvard Study Confirms: #ExxonKnew and Misled Public About Climate Threat for Decades

"ExxonMobil contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it," researchers conclude

Climate march sign reads 'denied facts are still facts'

Researchers from Harvard studied nearly 200 ExxonMobil communications and concluded that the company actively misled the public about climate change, contradicting findings by even their own scientists. (Photo: Edward Kimmel/Flickr/cc)

A peer-reviewed study published on Wednesday confirmed "a discrepancy between what ExxonMobil's scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public."

"Even while ExxonMobil scientists were contributing to climate science and writing reports that explained it to their bosses, the company was paying for advertisements that told a very different tale."
—Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes, Harvard researchers

"ExxonMobil contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it," wrote Harvard researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes in their study, published in the scientific journal Environmental Research Letters.

"Even while ExxonMobil scientists were contributing to climate science and writing reports that explained it to their bosses, the company was paying for advertisements that told a very different tale," they concluded in a New York Times op-ed on Tuesday.

"Exxon has officially run out of excuses," said Greenpeace USA climate liability campaigner Naomi Ages. "This peer-reviewed study from Harvard is just the latest piece of evidence indicating that the largest oil company in the world knew about the risks of climate change, but concealed them from the public and shareholders."

The study confirmed findings from 2015 reports by InsideClimate News and The Los Angeles Times, which claimed the company had long known about the risks of climate change but publicly denied them, and triggered probes by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In their New York Times op-ed, the researchers note that they were pushed to undertake their study by ExxonMobil's response to the 2015 reports:

The company responded that the allegations were false and "deliberately cherry-picked," and that anyone who looked into the matter would see that. "Read the documents," the company said, "and make up your own mind." A year ago we took up this challenge. We have read all of the documents, analyzed them according to established social science methods, and made up our minds.... Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications.

Supran and Oreskes examined 187 climate change-related communications from ExxonMobil between 1977 and 2014, including peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal communications, as well as paid, editorial-style advertisements, or "advertorials," published by the New York Times.

They observed that ExxonMobil's Times advertorials "included several instances of explicit factual misrepresentation," and "overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties, promoting a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil's own."

After Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik wrote about the study, ExxonMobil emailed him comment, calling its findings "inaccurate and preposterous."

"ExxonMobil acknowledges the risk of climate change is clear and warrants action," the statement said, asserting that the study "was paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against the company."

Supran and Oreskes note in the study's acknowledgments their research was paid for by the Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and the Rockefeller Family Fund, and state they "have no other relevant financial ties and declare no conflicts of interest."

Oreskes further told Mother Jones that ExxonMobil's messaging adapts as its past positions become discredited, but that the company still sticks to its old habits of sowing doubt among members of the public.

"They are promoting a different kind of doubt," she said. "It's a doubt that says, 'There's climate change, but we have to still use fossil fuels because there's no alternative,'" Oreskes explained, stressing that there are alternatives (as outlined in Bill McKibben's recent In These Times cover story).

Climate activists, politicians, and journalists praised the study online, and called for the company—and its former CEO, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson—to be held accountable:

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