Earlier this week Harvard University’s Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran published a study they claim proves ExxonMobil misled the public on climate change. But it was Oreskes and Supran – with the help of sympathetic reporters – who misled the public by disguising the true intent of their report.
Although the authors and media coverage suggest a single entity was conducting internal research and then running public “advertorials” claiming otherwise, the report is actually comparing the climate research of one company (Exxon) with the “advertorials” of another (Mobil) before the companies merged. That’s a detail you would think journalists would prominently feature in their coverage, but then again, there’s a reason public trust in the media is near a record low.
Here are the five things you need to know about the report.
1. These Are Not Objective Scientists
The New York Times has credited Naomi Oreskes with helping kick off the #ExxonKnew campaign, whose goal was to convince “a single sympathetic state attorney general” to investigate the company for supposed climate fraud. Oreskes revealed to Congress last year that she and the Union of Concerned Scientists briefed several state AGs on their campaign in 2015 and 2016.
One of the Executive Board members of the journal that published the research was a panelist at an Oreskes-led forum in 2012, which was part of the infamous La Jolla conference that established the strategy for what became the #ExxonKnew campaign.
Geoffrey Supran is an active participant in the effort to convince universities and pension funds to divest from fossil fuels. He previously helped with the unsuccessful campaign to pressure the American Geophysical Union to disassociate with ExxonMobil. More recently, Supran took to Mashable to suggest that homeless people are doing too much damage to the climate. “Even a homeless person in America has a carbon footprint of roughly 8.5 tons of carbon dioxide per year – far higher than the per capita value needed to hold back dangerous climate change,” Supran wrote.
Oreskes and Supran were not out to discover the objective truth with this report; they were both biased against ExxonMobil from the start. To illustrate this point, Energy In Depth spent a few minutes digging through the authors’ tweets to find some representative examples of their long-held bias against the company. In one tweet from 2015, Oreskes wrote: “Did Exxon deliberately mislead the public on climate change? Hello. Of course they did!”
— Naomi Oreskes (@NaomiOreskes) October 21, 2015
The fact that Oreskes was declaring ExxonMobil was “misleading the public” two years before her study was finished suggests she worked backwards from a conclusion.
Oreskes has also publicly cheered on the Massachusetts Attorney General for her costly legal investigation into ExxonMobil’s statements on climate change.
Supran, meanwhile, has tweeted that it’s a “sane” position to suggest that “Exxon’s actions may have imperiled all of humanity…It’s time to divest.” Upon learning that former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson had been picked to be President Trump’s Secretary of State, Supran tweeted that “Earth’s entire climate system just groaned in fear,” even though at the time Tillerson supported both the Paris Climate Agreement and a carbon tax. According to The Hill, Tillerson became “the most vocal voice in the Trump administration” to urge the president to stay in the Paris Agreement.
Supran also expressed last year that he hopes someone “engineers Exxon out of business.”
— Geoffrey Supran (@GeoffreySupran) January 21, 2016
2. The Difference Between Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil
In an article for Climatewire, reporter Ben Hulac inadvertently made a very crucial point about the study’s conclusions:
“In a paper published in Environmental Research Letters, two Harvard University researchers conclude that for nearly 40 years, Exxon behaved like two separate companies targeting two separate audiences. It published internal reports and peer-reviewed research saying that climate change was real, serious and man-made, while simultaneously telling citizens that climate science was far from settled.”
It is an interesting point because for most of those years, ExxonMobil was two separate companies – Exxon and Mobil. Indeed, most of the “advertorials” Oreskes and Supran claim were used to mislead the public on climate change were published by Mobil before the companies merged in late 1999, while the internal climate research was largely conducted by Exxon. The distinction appears to have been lost on the study’s authors:
“Our analysis covers the publication period of the documents made available by ExxonMobil: 1977–2014. These documents include peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications (academic papers, conference proceedings, reports, company pamphlets, etc) and internal documents. Our analysis compares these documents with ExxonMobil’s public outreach in the form of paid, editorial-style advertisements—known as ‘advertorials’—published on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times (NYT) . We focus on advertorials because they come directly from ExxonMobil and are an unequivocally public form of communication ‘designed to affect public opinion or official opinion’ …We examine whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications, or whether there is a discernable discrepancy between the company’s public and private communications.”
What they actually examined was whether there was a “discernable discrepancy” between the public communications of one company and the private communications of a separate company.
Additionally, they sourced the “advertorials” used in their study from a website called “PolluterWatch,” which is a project of Greenpeace, a group that is currently facing two lawsuits from companies who, in an ironic twist, accuse Greenpeace of violating a federal statute under which #ExxonKnew activists want the government to prosecute ExxonMobil.
Defending itself against one of the lawsuits, Greenpeace told a federal court that its actions and statements “do not hew to strict literalisms or scientific precision.” In their own defense, they admitted that their accusations were “‘hyperbole,’ ‘heated rhetoric,’ and ‘non-verifiable statements of subjective opinion’ that should not be taken ‘literally’ or expose them to any legal liability.”
In other words, #ExxonKnew activists are now pushing the government to harass and prosecute ExxonMobil based on information from a group who admits its claims are “non-verifiable statements of subjective opinion.”
3. Yet Another Rockefeller-Funded Report
The study by Supran and Oreskes is only the latest in a long series of reports and actions funded by the wealthy Rockefeller family. The anti-fossil fuel Rockefellers have funded the #ExxonKnew campaign at every turn, including the investigative stories by InsideClimate News and the Columbia School of Journalism, which set the stage for the AG investigations of ExxonMobil and this week’s report.
The Harvard study relies heavily on research and reporting either funded by the Rockefellers or undertaken by anti-ExxonMobil campaigners. The report references several materials prepared by the Rockefeller funded-Union of Concerned Scientists and Greenpeace.
The report also relies on the work of Ed Maibach, who was the leader of the infamous RICO-20 – a group of college professors who unsuccessfully petitioned the Obama administration to bring federal racketeering charges against individual climate skeptics. The professors’ letter alarmed Rockefeller-affiliated groups who were focusing on prosecuting companies instead of individuals, the better to obscure their attempts to silence dissent on climate policy.
Before the professors sent their letter, they sought the support of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Peter Frumhoff, a key player in what would become the #ExxonKnew campaign, responded by saying the UCS wouldn’t support their letter because they were pursuing a different path, one that encouraged state AGs to take action against fossil fuel companies.
Maibach and his colleagues sent the letter anyway, prompting Climate Nexus, a project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, to jump in and try to clean up their mess. “I’d recommend you…point to it as a call for investigating (not prosecuting) organizations and companies (not specific scientists),” said Climate Nexus’ Philip Newell in an email, a strategy that aligned with what the #ExxonKnew campaign was preparing.
The Washington Times explains what happened next:
In what would appear to be a lucky break for the professors, the RICO-20 letter was posted shortly before InsideClimate News launched a multipart report called “Exxon: The Road Not Taken,” which accused the company of hiding its climate research in order to protect its bottom line.
The emails show InsideClimate News and Climate Nexus had a relationship: On the same day that Mr. Newell laid out his strategy for damage control, InsideClimate News publisher David Sassoon sent an embargoed copy of one of the Exxon stories to six Climate Nexus executives.
“And on that front, you’re in luck because tonight/tomorrow InsideClimate News is publishing the latest in its series about Exxon’s research on climate,” said Mr. Newell in his email. “This one will focus on the legal liability and duty to disclose risk to shareholders, which should be a perfect news hook for you to use if any of you are interested in penning an oped (which I’d be happy to help you with).” (emphasis added)
Rockefeller Family Fund director Lee Wasserman, who is widely believed to have helped initiate New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of ExxonMobil following several suspicious emails regarding “activities of specific companies regarding climate change” sent in early 2015, spoke to Climatewire reporter Ben Hulac about the Oreskes report. Wasserman said the RFF gave Oreskes $12,000 for the study but claimed, “We had zero influence over the study and its conclusions.”
Still, giving the money to Oreskes was a safe bet for Wasserman, given her extensive history of activism against the company. Recall that Oreskes also received funding from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund for two earlier reports attempting to peg “climate responsibility” to specific fossil fuel companies, prompting the Daily Caller News Foundation to write, “Activists Manipulated Academic Research To Smear Exxon.”
4. Complicated Relationship with Climatewire
Speaking of Ben Hulac, the study’s authors gently criticized his past reporting on the #ExxonKnew campaign, suggesting that he incorrectly reported that the campaign alleged “ExxonMobil ‘suppressed climate change research,’ ‘withheld it,’ or ‘sought to hide‘ it.” The Supran/Oreskes reports observes that Exxon’s research is public and is in line with the general scientific understanding.
Still, another of Hulac’s articles is cited in the reference section of the report, an odd selection for a story that has been widely covered in the press by outlets that aren’t hidden behind a paywall. Hulac doesn’t appear to have taken the criticism to heart, nor did he worry about accusations of impartiality; he defended the study on Twitter after ExxonMobil issued its own response to the controversial findings.
5. Textbook Rollout
The dramatic rollout of this study indicates that the purpose of the study was not to contribute to the scientific literature, as the authors claim, but rather to generate as much media attention as possible.
At precisely 10PM ET Tuesday night, no fewer than five articles about the study went live simultaneously on left-leaning news outlets, even though the study itself would not publish until Wednesday morning. Among the five articles were an op-ed by the study’s authors published in the New York Times, a column published in the Los Angeles Times, articles on InsideClimate News and the San Diego Union-Tribune (the latter featuring a slick video interview with Oreskes and Supran), and a write up in Mother Jones.
The story quickly bounced around the #ExxonKnew echo chamber, generating dozens of additional stories on Wednesday. It even solicited a tweet from Al Gore praising the study. Oreskes was so excited she decided to tag the Executive Director of Climate Nexus in her response.
— Naomi Oreskes (@NaomiOreskes) August 23, 2017
Although many in the media went to great lengths to characterize this study and its authors as a legitimate scientific enterprise, the facts tell a completely different story.