ExxonMobil has deliberately “misled the public about climate change” for nearly 40 years according to an empirical study conducted by a team of Harvard researchers, and the company needs to be held accountable.
The study examined 187 documents about climate change that were created and circulated by ExxonMobil between 1977 and 2014 and “compare[d] their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable.”
The texts analyzed by the researchers included company-sponsored peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, private company communications and editorial-style advertisements in the New York Times known as “advertorials.”
Researchers Supran and Oreskes found that “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.”
In other words, texts intended for public consumption—most notably the New York Times advertorials—consistently casts doubt on the credibility of climate science. In contrast, the company’s private records nearly always affirm that climate change is real and caused by human activity, a hypothesis upon which 97 percent of scientists agree.
The researchers identified the trend that “as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt” about whether climate change is real, human-caused, serious or solvable.
For instance, one internal 1979 text bluntly acknowledges “the increase [in atmospheric carbon-dioxide] is due to fossil fuel combustion,” while advertorials from the same year propagate the false narrative that climate science is too dubious to be taken seriously.
Supran and Oreskes’ findings, although not entirely surprising, are demoralizing and infuriating.
They not only demonstrate that ExxonMobil has known about climate change for nearly 40 years, but they also reveal that the company has fully understood its own industry’s negative impact on the planet for the same amount of time.
Further, ExxonMobil’s inconsistent messages about global warming offer indisputable proof that the only reason there is a debate about climate change in this country is because fossil fuel giants disseminate falsehoods even they do not believe simply for the sake of protecting fossil fuel empires.
This calculated, decades-old deception campaign would not be so deeply disturbing if the ties between the American government and ExxonMobil—the 13 largest oil company in the world, according to Forbes—were not so strong.
Open Secrets, a non-profit, nonpartisan research group that tracks the activity of lobbying groups in the United Sates, reports that ExxonMobil spent $11,840,000 on lobbying efforts in 2016.
Even more disturbing is the fact that Open Secrets notes a staggering 73 percent of the oil giant’s lobbyists have previously held government jobs. Additionally, current Secretary of State Rex Tillerson joined the ranks of Exxon in 1975 and served as its chairman and CEO from 2006 to 2016.
The data strongly suggests ExxonMobil and the U.S. government have colluded for decades to stall the crucial transition away from climate-warming fossil fuels by controlling public opinion through propaganda that contradict the company’s own sentiments.
There is no debate: the effects of human-made climate change will fundamentally devastate life on this planet. Given Supran and Oreske’s conclusion, Exxon has been consciously deceiving the public about this since at least 1977 and it is unconscionable to not investigate to what extent current and former government officials with links to Exxon were involved in this conspiracy.
Renee Perez is a junior majoring in political science and economics