Guest essay by Eric Worrall
What do you do if nobody cares about your hardline green hate campaign against Exxon? You re-present your position as a study, of course.
Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014)
Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes
This paper assesses whether ExxonMobil Corporation has in the past misled the general public about climate change. We present an empirical document-by-document textual content analysis and comparison of 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and paid, editorial-style advertisements (‘advertorials’) in The New York Times. We examine whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications—specifically, we compare their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt. This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents. For example, accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of peer-reviewed papers and 80% of internal documents acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, yet only 12% of advertorials do so, with 81% instead expressing doubt. We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public. Our content analysis also examines ExxonMobil’s discussion of the risks of stranded fossil fuel assets. We find the topic discussed and sometimes quantified in 24 documents of various types, but absent from advertorials. Finally, based on the available documents, we outline ExxonMobil’s strategic approach to climate change research and communication, which helps to contextualize our findings.
We adapt and combine the methodologies used to quantify the consensus on AGW by Oreskes  and Cook et al  with the content analysis methodologies used to characterize media communications of AGW by Feldman et al and Elsasser and Dunlap [27, 28]. Developed to assess peer-reviewed scientific literature, cable news, and conservative newspapers, respectively, these offer generalizable approaches to quantifying the positions of an entity or community on a particular scientific question across multiple document classes.
Our study comprises 187 documents (see table 1): 32 internal documents (from ICN , ExxonMobil , and Climate Investigations Center ); 53 articles labeled ‘Peer-Reviewed Publications’ in ExxonMobil’s ‘Contributed Publications’ list ; 48 (unique and retrievable) documents labeled ‘Additional Publications’ in ExxonMobil’s ‘Contributed Publications’ list; 36 Mobil/ExxonMobil advertorials related to climate change in the NYT; and 18 ‘Other’ publicly available ExxonMobil communications–mostly non-peer-reviewed materials–obtained during our research. To our knowledge, these constitute the relevant, publicly available internal documents that have led to recent allegations against ExxonMobil, as well as all peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed documents offered by the company in response. They also include all discovered ExxonMobil advertorials in the NYT discussing AGW. Advertorials are sourced from a collection compiled by PolluterWatch based on a search of the ProQuest archive .
The most widely held theory is that:
- The increase [in atmospheric CO2] is due to fossil fuel combustion
- Increasing CO2 concentration will cause a warming of the earth’s surface
- The present trend of fossil fuel consumption will cause dramatic environmental effects before the year 2050.
However, the memo notes: ‘It must be realized that there is great uncertainty in the existing climatic models because of a poor understanding of the atmospheric/terrestrial/oceanic CO2 balance’ . Likewise, an internal briefing on the ‘CO2 “Greenhouse” Effect’ from 1982 states: ‘There is currently no unambiguous scientific evidence that the earth is warming. If the earth is on a warming trend, we’re not likely to detect it before 1995’ (see table 3). Yet, the authors say, ‘Our best estimate is that doubling of the current concentration could increase average global temperature by about 1.3 °C to 3.1 °C’ . Several internal documents make this distinction, acknowledging that increased CO2 would likely cause warming, while expressing (reasonable) doubt that warming was already underway and large enough to be detected.
This cautious consensus is also evident in charts in internal ExxonMobil presentations and reports. (Due to copyright restrictions prohibiting the reproduction of figures owned by ExxonMobil, we instead provide hyperlinks to third-party websites at which relevant figures can be viewed.) For example, in a 1978 presentation to the Exxon Corporation Management Committee, Exxon scientist James Black showed a graph (see https://perma.cc/PJ4N-T8SC) of projected warming ‘model[ed] with the assumption that the carbon dioxide levels will double by 2050 A.D.’ . Another case is the 1982 Exxon primer already mentioned, which includes a graph (see https://perma.cc/PH4X-ZJBA) showing ‘an estimate of the average global temperature increase’ under the ‘Exxon 21st Century Study-High Growth scenario’ . A third example is a table (see https://perma.cc/9DGQ-4TBW) presented by Exxon scientist Henry Shaw at a 1984 Exxon/Esso environmental conference, which showed that Exxon’s expected ‘average temperature rise’ of 1.3 °C–3.1 °C was comparable to projections by leading research institutions (1.5 °C–4.5 °C) . This shows that ExxonMobil scientists and managers were well informed of the state of the science at the time. But they also tended to focus on the prevailing uncertainties: Black stressed the alleged shortcomings of extant climate models before showing his results; Shaw emphasized the variable and ‘unpredictable’ character of some values.
The study concludes that what executives discussed in private was different to their public position.
But lets think about this claim from a rational perspective.
- Exxon scientists like Henry Shaw were saying that climate might cause between 1.3 – 3.1C warming / doubling of CO2.
- A lot of this material was published – so in no sense was it “hidden”, other than use of annoying paywalls which a well funded science journalist could afford – just like the paywalls alarmist climate scientists frequently use to help fund their work.
The key point is that the science IS uncertain. 1.3 – 3.1C is a huge range of uncertainty.
1.3C / doubling of CO2 is a complete non-event – if we burn every scrap of fossil fuel available to current technology, we might just about achieve a little over a doubling of global CO2 since pre-industrial times. Given we have already experienced around 1C of that warming with no ill effects, other than in the imaginations of activists, its difficult to see how another degree would be that different to what has already occurred.
That one degree of warming to date since pre-industrial times may have included an anthropogenic contribution, but the level of anthropogenic contribution to global warming is far from certain. A degree or two of warming or cooling is well within the range of natural variation.
The high end of the Exxon estimate, 3.1C / doubling, is potentially disruptive, but the high estimate is looking more unlikely every passing year that global temperature stagnates. Even if climate sensitivity is as high as 3.1C / doubling, we can afford to wait and see.
If global warming becomes a problem in the future, our descendants will have access to advanced technology and engineering capabilities to rectify any issues. Or they could just plant lots of additional trees.
The lower range of Exxon’s estimate is an unequivocal “no action required”, the upper range of Exxon’s estimate is “we might need to do something about it in the future”.
Exxon plainly opposed frantic green campaigns to shut down the modern world because those green scare campaigns were based on fantasies, not mainstream science.
Deep greens like Naomi Oreskes are so caught up in their apocalyptic fantasies, they completely miss the obvious; an objective interpretation of the facts suggests there is no case to answer. In my opinion, Exxon’s actions and communications with the public were proportionate and reasonable.