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Academic study concludes Exxon Mobil misled on climate change

August 23, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Exxon Mobil has been criticized for allegedly hiding what it knew about the perils of climate change. Now researchers from Harvard University have published a study alleging that the oil and gas giant tried to systematically mislead the public about climate change for 40 years. William Brangham learns more from science correspondent Miles O’Brien.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ExxonMobil has long been criticized for allegedly hiding what it knew about climate change. Just today, a pair of researchers say that Exxon’s own documents prove that is true.

William Brangham has more. He’s in our weekly series on the “Leading Edge of Science”.



Those two researchers who are from Harvard University, they published a study today alleging that ExxonMobil tried to systematically mislead the public about climate change for 40 years. The researchers began this study after the energy company challenged critics to compare Exxon’s own peer-reviewed scientific research on climate change, against what the company publicly said about that science.

Our science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins us from Detroit with more on this.

So, Miles, tell us, what was the scope of this particular study?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, William, we’re talking about systematic, scientific content analysis. A hundred eighty-seven internal and external corporate documents produced by ExxonMobil, 1977 to 2014. Now, during that time, the oil giant was funding a lot of rigorous studies on climate change. They were published in scientific journals, not easily accessible or digestible to the public.

Eighty-three percent of these peer-reviewed studies matched the scientific consensus that climate change is real, caused by humans, largely, and is an existential concern. But the study concludes ExxonMobil offered the general public something else, a diametrically opposed stance on climate science.

Now, to assess ExxonMobil’s public statements, the researchers went through the so-called “advertorials” that the company purchased on the op-ed page of the “New York Times” every Thursday for 30 years.

And it was almost the same proportion, 81 percent of those statements, but on the other side of the coin, a completely divergent view. They cast doubt on whether climate change was real. It discounted human impacts. And they suggested there was nothing practical to do about it anyway.

The study co-author, Geoffrey Supran, is a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard.


GEOFFREY SUPRAN, Harvard University: What we found when we read these documents is a clear, unmistakable, systematic discrepancy between, on the one hand, what ExxonMobil said and discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles. And on the other hand, what it said about climate change to the general public, no less than in “The New York Times.”


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: So, Miles, this whole research effort basically came out of a dare that ExxonMobil made saying, take a look at our documents. Explain what happened there.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, William, this was an attempt to call a bluff, I think. ExxonMobil authored a blog two years ago, daring its critics to analyze its publicly available documents on climate science. They said, read all of these documents. Make up your own mind

The challenge came in the wake of some great investigative reporting by “Inside Climate News,” and it found ExxonMobil years ago acknowledged climate change privately, it is caused by humans and is a serious problem, but it did not acknowledge it publicly.

The study co-author, Naomi Oreskes, is a professor of history of science at Harvard.


NAOMI ORESKES, Professor of History of Science, Harvard University: We see a picture where the company is aware of evolving science, and saying things that pretty much any climate scientist who would have been working at the time would have basically agreed with more or less. But in contrast, when ExxonMobil turned to the public and published advertorials, there we see a very different picture. There we see a very consistent picture emphasizing doubt, implying that we don’t really know, that the science is unsettled. And, therefore, it’s either too soon to act or it would be too expensive to act or the problem is too difficult to solve.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Miles, does the paper point out any specific examples that the authors say prove their conclusion about Exxon?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, William, there’s one that really stands out. In 1985, an Exxon scientist coauthored a study that was really prescient. He predicted that global climate at the surface would increase by two degrees above preindustrial levels, and this was way before the United Nations scientists came to that conclusion. And yet, 15 years after that study was released in “The New York Times,” Exxon released an advertorial saying unsettled science was the rule of the day, and it quoted data from other studies which seemed to suggest it was natural fluctuations. The authors of that study said it was extremely misleading.


GEOFFREY SUPRAN: We have messages like this about unsettled science read by probably millions of people, and in contrast, decent climate science, by Exxon’s own scientists, hidden away in peer-reviewed articles in, you know, scientific journals. And so the discrepancy is not just in the message being communicated.


WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Miles, what has Exxon said about this report?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, we called ExxonMobil. We asked them to respond on camera to the Harvard study. They declined, but they did offer us a written statement.

In part it reads: The study was paid for, written and published by activists leading a five-year campaign against the company. It is inaccurate and preposterous. Our statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science. Rather than pursuing solutions to address the risk of climate change, these activists, along with trial lawyers, have acknowledge a goal of extracting money from our shareholders and attacking the company’s reputation.

Naomi Oreskes says she is not ashamed to be called an activist, because she considers herself to be both an activist and a scholar, and she doesn’t see those two things as contradictory, William.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Miles, does Exxon offer any examples that contradict this study?

MILES O’BRIEN: They do offer two examples from the year 2000, two op-ed pieces which seem to embrace the overall scientific consensus. But that’s all they offered specifically.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Obviously, this is coming in the midst of Exxon fighting all of these other legal battles about its messaging about climate change. How is this study going to impact any of that?

MILES O’BRIEN: Well, Exxon is, indeed, fighting off a lot of legal challenges right now. Shareholders have sued the company claiming its public statements dismissing the risks of climate change were materially false and misleading. A class action suit filed by Exxon employees claims the company overstated the value of its assets, driven in part by its failure to acknowledge the impact of climate change on the value of its reserves.

Attorneys general in New York and Massachusetts are probing whether Exxon lied to investors, as is the Securities and Exchange Commission. Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes say they’re not making judgments on specific legal issues, but it is highly likely this scientific take on the politics of climate change will be injected into the legal process, William.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right. As always, Miles O’Brien, thank you so much.

MILES O’BRIEN: You’re welcome, William.