ExxonMobil’s deliberate attempts to sow doubt on the reality and urgency of climate change and their donations to front groups to disseminate false information about climate change have been public knowledge for a long time, now.
Investigative reports in 2015 revealed that Exxon had its own scientists doing its own climate modeling as far back as the 1970s: science and modeling that was not only accurate, but that was being used to plan for the company’s future. I have a unique perspective – because I was there.
Now, a peer-reviewed study published August 23 has confirmed that what Exxon was saying internally about climate change was quantitatively very different from their public statements. Specifically, researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes found that at least 80 percent of the internal documents and peer-reviewed publications they studied from between 1977 and 2014 were consistent with the state of the science – acknowledging that climate change is real and caused by humans, and identifying “reasonable uncertainties” that any climate scientist would agree with at the time. Yet over 80 percent of Exxon’s editorial-style paid advertisements over the same period specifically focused on uncertainty and doubt, the study found.
The stark contrast between internally discussing cutting-edge climate research while externally conducting a climate disinformation campaign is enough to blow many minds. What was going on at Exxon?
From 1995 to 1997, Exxon provided partial financial support for my master’s thesis, which focused on methane chemistry and emissions. I spent several weeks in 1996 as an intern at their Annandale research lab in New Jersey and years working on the collaborative research that resulted in three of the published studies referenced in Supran and Oreskes’ new analysis.
Climate research at Exxon
A scientist is a scientist no matter where we work, and my Exxon colleagues were no exception. Thoughtful, cautious and in full agreement with the scientific consensus on climate – these are characteristics any scientist would be proud to own.
Did Exxon have an agenda for our research? Of course – it’s not a charity. Their research and development was targeted, and in my case, it was targeted at something that would raise no red flags in climate policy circles: quantifying the benefits of methane reduction.
Methane is a waste product released by coal mining and natural gas leaks; wastewater treatment plants; farting cows, sheep, goats and anything else that chews its cud; decaying organic trash in garbage dumps; giant termite mounds in Africa; and even, in vanishingly small amounts, our own lactose-intolerant family members.
On a molecule-by-molecule basis, methane absorbs about 35 times more of the Earth’s heat than carbon dioxide. Methane has a much shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide gas, and we produce a lot less of it, so there’s no escaping the fact that carbon has to go. But if our concern is how fast the Earth is warming, we can get a big bang for our buck by cutting methane emissions as soon as possible, while continuing to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels long-term.
For the gas and oil industry, reducing methane emissions means saving energy. So it’s no surprise that, during my research, I didn’t experience any heavy-handed guidance or interference with my results. No one asked to review my code or suggested ways to “adjust” my findings. The only requirement was that a journal article with an Exxon co-author pass an internal review before it could be submitted for peer review, a policy similar to that of many federal agencies.
Did I know what else they were up to at the time? I couldn’t even imagine it.
Fresh out of Canada, I was unaware that there were people who didn’t accept climate science – so unaware, in fact, that it was nearly half a year before I realized I’d married one – let alone that Exxon was funding a disinformation campaign at the very same time it was supporting my research on the most expedient ways to reduce the impact of humans on climate.
Yet Exxon’s choices have contributed directly to the situation we are in today, a situation that in many ways seems unreal: one where many elected representatives oppose climate action, while China leads the U.S. in wind energy, solar power, economic investment in clean energy and even the existence of a national cap and trade policy similar to the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill of 2009.
This latest study underscores why many are calling on Exxon to be held responsible for knowingly misleading the public on such a critical issue. For scientists and academics, though, it may fuel another, different, yet similarly moral debate.
Are we willing to accept financial support that is offered as a sop to the public conscience?
The concept of tendering literal payment for sin is nothing new. From the indulgences of the Middle Ages to the criticisms some have leveled at carbon offsets today, we humans have always sought to stave off the consequences of our actions and ease our conscience with good deeds, particularly of the financial kind. Today, many industry groups follow this familiar path: supporting science denial with the left hand, while giving to cutting-edge research and science with the right.