A standard page out of the American Business playbook is that if there is a serious problem emerging down the road, corporate chieftains ramp up a massive disinformation and lobbying campaign to undermine the threat.
The tobacco industry used it to great effect for decades. It was in the mid-1960s that the U.S. Surgeon General first issued the warning that smoking cigarettes can cause cancer, but it took decades of battling the industry’s fake news, public relations consultants and corrupt researchers before public health advocates were able to make significant headway in protecting the public.
Apparently, that playbook was also used by the oil, gas and coal industries to undermine climate science. Last week, two researchers from Harvard University published a study that reviewed internal and public records of oil industry giant ExxonMobil to see whether the company knew about the dangers of climate change, yet misled the public and investors about the dangers their own research had found.
Essentially the researchers found that Exxon knew about the dangers and engaged in a campaign that made "explicit factual misrepresentations" in newspaper ads it purchased to convey its views on the oil industry and climate science.
Over the past few years there has been a significant, and growing, number of media reports that have shown that Exxon — along with other fossil fuel companies — has known for decades that the burning of fossil fuels was a key contributor to global warming.
The Harvard researchers went a step further by demonstrating that Exxon acknowledged the reality of climate change in academic papers and internal documents while promoting doubt in public-facing communications.
The researchers said they examined 187 Exxon documents, including internal memos, peer-reviewed papers by Exxon scientists and New York Times "advertorials" that Exxon paid to have published in the style of opinion pieces. The researchers said they used a social science analysis method to turn statements in the documents into data points that could be counted and compared.
The authors wrote: "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."
The Harvard researchers wrote that their analysis of the documents makes the answer to that question clear. "Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public," they said.
The researchers also stated that the Exxon scientists acknowledged that burning fossil fuels was adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and causing global temperatures to rise as early as 1979. But the company's position in newspaper ads consistently asserted doubt about climate science.
ExxonMobil angrily disputed the researchers’ claims, stating that the company’s “statements have been consistent with our understanding of climate science.”
What is without doubt is that the industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars to fund organizations and research to undermine the growing body of independent research showing the connections between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change resulting from global warming. Those efforts were so successful that their allies now control the public health and science policies of the federal government – which is eviscerating public health protections and steps that had been taken to combat runaway global warming.
And while this latest volley between researchers and ExxonMobil may not completely resolve the dispute, what is clear is that the issue will eventually be resolved in court.
New York State Attorney General Schneiderman two years ago launched an investigation into Exxon’s behaviors and whether its actions constitute fraud. It is reasonable to expect to see some action on that investigation soon. Exxon will get its day in court and the public may finally know for sure what the company knew about climate change and the steps it took to protect – or threaten – the environment.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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