ExxonMobil misled the public about the climate crisis. Now they’re trying to silence critics

In 2017, we published the first peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate change communications. We found that the company and its parents, Exxon and Mobil, misled the public about climate change and its severity. Central to this conclusion was the contrast between what Exxon and ExxonMobil scientists said in internal reports and scientific articles versus what Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil told the public in non-peer-reviewed publications and in “advertorials” – paid advertisements dressed up to look like opinion pieces – in The New York Times.

Newly leaked documents, reported recently by Bloomberg News, show that ExxonMobil’s climate dishonesty is even worse than we thought. While the company privately has an internal “plan for surging carbon emissions…by as much as the output of the entire nation of Greece,” according to Bloomberg, ExxonMobil executives “shield their carbon forecasts from investors.” In other words, ExxonMobil drew up plans to expand fossil fuel production, internally calculated how much this would increase their carbon dioxide emissions, then failed to disclose those estimates to investors. Indeed, the company has never publicly disclosed its emissions forecasts. In response to the Bloomberg report, ExxonMobil claimed that the leaked documents were not up-to-date, but declined to provide “any details on the new projections.”

ExxonMobil has launched a new attack on our research, penned by ExxonMobil Vice President Vijay Swarup in the academic journal where we published our original study. In fact, ExxonMobil, in trying to dismiss our findings, has inadvertently made them stronger. They have done so in three ways, which we summarize today in a peer-reviewed rebuttal.

First, ExxonMobil has not challenged any of our findings about the 187 documents analyzed in our original study. They do not deny that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil all had early knowledge that their products have the potential to cause dangerous global warming. Nor do they deny that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil all promoted doubt about climate science and its implications in order to delay action.

Second, ExxonMobil accused us of analyzing “less than 3%” of their advertorials. This is misleading: less than 4% of their advertorials concerned climate change; most were irrelevant. Nevertheless, we have expanded our research program to include advertorials of which we were originally unaware, and found that – spoiler alert – “the results strengthen our original finding.”

Third, ExxonMobil claims that our original publication “obscur[ed] the separateness” of Exxon and Mobil prior to their 1999 merger. This is incorrect and misleading: when Exxon and Mobil merged, ExxonMobil inherited legal and moral responsibility for both. Moreover, as we summarize in today’s rebuttal, additional work we have done in response to ExxonMobil’s complaints “further demonstrates that both Exxon and Mobil separately misled the public, and continued to do so once they merged to become ExxonMobil Corp.”

All told, “we can now conclude with even greater confidence that Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil Corp have all, variously, misled the public.”

Unable to disprove our findings, ExxonMobil’s critique has resorted to quoting a non-peer-reviewed report commissioned and paid for by the company. Instead of subjecting their positions to the independent scrutiny of academic peer-review, as we (and all scientists) do, ExxonMobil found a backdoor, so that they could then claim that our work has been refuted.

These Big Tobacco-style tactics – doubt-mongering, character assassination, intellectual hitjobs, and undisclosed conflicts of interest – are precisely the sort of product-defense maneuvers that ExxonMobil perfected while attacking climate science and climate scientists. The only difference now is that they are coming after the social sciences, too.

But it’s hardly the first time. When we published our study, ExxonMobil immediately responded with a straw man, a falsehood, cherry picking, and ad hominem attacks. Last year, they sent a now-leaked memo to Members of European Parliament in an attempt to discredit one of us (Geoffrey Supran) who had been invited to testify to that parliament as an expert witness about the company’s history of climate denial. And for the past three years, ExxonMobil has run a social media campaign accusing us of publishing “manufactured” science at the behest of “a political campaign.” It has been viewed millions of times.

With ExxonMobil so evidently offering its critiques in bad faith, we hesitated whether to engage at all. They don’t need to win this debate, they just need to make it seem like there is one. Personally, we don’t care what ExxonMobil says about us. But their attempts to smear our research do matter, because – in the face of mounting lawsuits, surging public protests and crumbling market value – ExxonMobil is swinging for a way to discredit the work that demonstrates what they have done.

Alas, it is a swing and a miss. ExxonMobil’s reaction to our work is nothing more than a case in point of the deceptive behavior we described in our original study. ExxonMobil is now misleading the public about its history of misleading the public. Indeed, as Bloomberg’s new report reveals, the company is hiding climate information, too.

Geoffrey Supran is a Research Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and co-Director of the Climate Social Science Network at Brown University
Naomi Oreskes is the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, the author of Why Trust Science? and the co-author, with Erik M Conway, of Merchants of Doubt