Last week, ExxonMobil released their much anticipated 2015 Corporate Citizenship and Worldwide Giving reports, which include voluntarily disclosed information about their corporate giving each year. Despite ongoing claims by the company to NOT be funding climate denial, the reports once again reveal that the oil and gas giant has continued to financially support many groups that work to undermine climate science, while labeling such funding as corporate social responsibility.
Meanwhile, Monday and Tuesday on Capitol Hill, 19 Senators discussed the role the fossil fuel industry has played in deceiving the public and casting doubt on science that shows its products are harmful. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island has introduced a resolution asking his colleagues if they agree that this industry has knowingly denied the science and worked to discredit it, comparable to the misinformation campaigns of the tobacco and lead industries. You can follow along under the hashtag #WebofDenial or watch on C-SPAN 2.
Casting doubt on science, undermining safeguards
What do tobacco, lead, and fossil fuels have in common? A few things, it turns out: They all have had years of scientific study suggesting their products harm the public’s health. And all three areas have an industry that undermined that science in order to prevent policies that would protect people.
“Doubt is our product,” a tobacco executive famously said. It was a strategy that worked for years while people died of smoking-related illnesses. The tobacco industry embarked on a persistent and pervasive campaign to deny that cigarettes caused cancer. The lead industry invested in a similar strategy. Lead was ubiquitous—in our pipes, in our paint, in our gasoline and the lead industry essentially had a monopoly on lead research through the Kettering Laboratory. When independent scientific research demonstrated the dangers of lead exposure, the industry worked to discredit the scientist (Clair Patterson) and continued to deny the evidence linking lead to adverse health effects. “Lead helps guard your health,” a 1923 National Lead Co. ad toted.
Now the limelight is on the fossil fuel industry as more and more evidence surfaces suggesting that ExxonMobil and others in the fossil fuel industry knew decades ago that carbon dioxide emissions from the use of their products could result in dangerous climate change impacts. Yet instead of warning the public, they embarked on a decades-long campaign to misinform the public on climate science; or as the Senate resolution notes, they “developed a sophisticated and deceitful campaign that funded think tanks and front groups, and paid public relations firms to deny, counter, and obfuscate peer-reviewed research.”
Exxon’s current #WebofDenial
While much has changed since these early days of denial, we learn this week that ExxonMobil continues today to support groups that work to undermine climate science now. We and others have reviewed ExxonMobil’s latest Worldwide Giving report and found that in 2015 the company gave nearly $2 million to groups that have spread misinformation on climate science or obstruct policy efforts to address global warming, including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Manhattan Institute, the Mercator Center, the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, the Washington Legal Foundation and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
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In 2015 ExxonMobil gave $61,500 to ALEC—a group that has spread climate misinformation to state lawmakers and frequently fought against renewable energy proposals at the state level. The company gave $1 million to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has worked aggressively to oppose clean energy standards and continues to prioritize opposing EPA’s science-based finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health. Exxon gave $75,000 to the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which has falsely claimed that “… there is no sound science to support the claims of Global Warming.” The group’s attacks on the EPA’s Clean Power Plan have since been thoroughly debunked by UCS and other experts, and refuted by leading members of the African-American community.
ExxonMobil hasn’t spun its #WebofDenial alone. As I noted here recently, bankruptcy has forced Peabody Energy to disclose its 2015 funding of many of these climate denial groups.
Exxon’s support for a carbon tax: A lot of talk, a lot less action
Also of note in Exxon Mobil’s 2015 Corporate Citizenship report is criticism it received from the company’s own External Citizenship Advisory Panel. The panel of experts took Exxon to task for its lack of clarity around climate-related actions. They write (emphasis mine):
However, the largest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions comes not from ExxonMobil’s internal operations, but from the use of its products. If society is to take significant actions to reduce the risks of climate change, which ExxonMobil states as an important responsibility, it must adopt appropriate public policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. Future reports would benefit from more specificity about the company’s support for a carbon tax, as well as its engagement on other policy issues in the United States and internationally.
Additionally, we would encourage the company to discuss more fully its continued focus primarily on oil and gas, relative to plans for moving toward lower-carbon sources of energy. Many of the world’s leading companies—including some in the oil and gas sector—are publicly announcing science-based goals to transition their businesses toward a low-carbon economy. As investors and stakeholders increasingly call for disclosure of corporate strategic goals, we believe ExxonMobil would benefit from becoming a leader in this regard.
Time to call out those who misrepresent climate science
Starting Monday and running through Tuesday, 19 U.S. Senators took the floor to discuss the role of the fossil fuel industry in funding groups like these to discredit climate science. They discussed the vast “Web of Denial” that has been built by the fossil fuel industry, the Koch brothers, and their agents.
ExxonMobil’s new report is a fresh reminder that the web of denial is more than a historical phenomenon—it’s an ongoing campaign by fossil fuel interests to undermine climate science and delay actions to address it.