Exxon spread doubt through weekly public advertorials in the New York Times while internal documents confirmed knowledge that climate change was real

Exxon spent $33 million to sow doubt and denial about the seriousness of global warming. Exxon honed the tobacco industry’s playbook with even more advanced public relations, advertising and lobbying muscle.  Corporate documents from the late 1970s stating unequivocally “there is no doubt” that CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels was a growing “problem” well understood within the company, but didn’t share that information with shareholders or the public.

This post also includes the earlier LA Times article at the bottom.  The August 2017 Harvard article overview and excerpt are at the top.

Geoffrey Supran1 and Naomi Oreskes. Assessing ExxonMobil’s climate change communications (1977–2014)Published 23 August 2017 Environmental Research LettersVolume 12Number 8

  • 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.
  • ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials

Supran and Oreskes paper assesses whether ExxonMobil Corporation has in the past misled the general public about climate change.  From their abstract:

We present an empirical document-by-document textual content analysis and comparison of 187 climate change communications from ExxonMobil, including peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications, internal company documents, and paid, editorial-style advertisements (‘advertorials’) in The New York Times. We examine whether these communications sent consistent messages about the state of climate science and its implications—specifically, we compare their positions on climate change as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. In all four cases, we find that as documents become more publicly accessible, they increasingly communicate doubt. This discrepancy is most pronounced between advertorials and all other documents. For example, accounting for expressions of reasonable doubt, 83% of Exxon’s 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. Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.

Our content analysis also examines ExxonMobil’s discussion of the risks of stranded fossil fuel assets. We find the topic discussed and sometimes quantified in 24 documents of various types, but absent from advertorials. Finally, based on the available documents, we outline ExxonMobil’s strategic approach to climate change research and communication, which helps to contextualize our findings.

Excerpted from their study:

On the question of whether ExxonMobil misled non-scientific audiences about climate science, our analysis supports the conclusion that it did. This conclusion is based on three factors: 1) discrepancies in AGW communications between document categories; 2) imbalance in impact of different document categories; and 3) factual mispresentations in some advertorials.

First, we have shown that there is a discrepancy between what different document categories say, and particularly what they emphasize, about AGW as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. This discrepancy grows with the public accessibility of documents, and is greatest between advertorials and the other documents.

Second, in public, ExxonMobil contributed quietly to the science and loudly to raising doubts about it. ExxonMobil’s peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed publications have been cited an average (median (mean)) of 21(60) and 2(9) times, respectively, suggesting an average readership of tens to hundreds3. Most texts are highly technical, intellectually inaccessible for laypersons, and of little interest to the general public or policymakers. Most scientific journals and conference proceedings are only circulated to academic libraries and require a paid subscription, making them physically inaccessible for the general public, too. Obtaining academic documents for this study, for example, required access to libraries at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology and international interlibrary loans. By contrast, Mobil/ExxonMobil bought AGW advertorials in the NYT specifically to allow ‘the public to know where we stand’ [137]. Readerships were in the millions [29]. The company took out an advertorial every Thursday between 1972 and 2001 [29]. They paid a discounted price of roughly $31 000 (2016 USD) per advertorial and bought one-quarter of all advertorials on the Op-Ed page, ‘towering over the other sponsors’ according to reviews of Mobil’s advertorials by Brown, Waltzer, and Waltzer [1929]. ‘After [experimentally] examining the effects of an actual ExxonMobil advertorial that appeared on the pages of The New York Times,’ Cooper and Nownes observed ‘that advertorials substantially affect levels of individual issue salience.…’ [20]

Third, ExxonMobil’s advertorials included several instances of explicit factual misrepresentation. As discussed in section 3.1.5, an ExxonMobil advertorial in 2000 directly contradicted the IPCC and presented ‘very misleading’ data, according to the scientist who produced the data [105106]. Another advertorial, in 1996, claimed that ‘greenhouse-gas emissions, which have a warming effect, are offset by another combustion product–particulates–which leads to cooling’ [138]. In 1985, ExxonMobil scientists had reported being ‘not very convinc[ed]’ by the argument that ‘aerosol particulates…compensat[e] for, and may even overwhelm, the fossil-fuel CO2 greenhouse warming’ [103]. By 1995, the IPCC had rejected it [71].

We acknowledge that textual analysis is inherently subjective: words have meaning in context. Particular coding assignments may therefore be debatable, depending on how the meaning and context of individual quotations and figures are interpreted. However, the intercoder reliability and agreement of our content analyses are consistently high (section S1.7, supplementary information). While one might disagree about the interpretation of specific words, the overall trends between document categories are clear (table S3, supplementary information).

In figure 3, we summarize ExxonMobil’s strategic approach to AGW research and communication. Internal documents show that by the early 1980s, ExxonMobil scientists and managers were sufficiently informed about climate science and its prevailing uncertainties to identify AGW as a potential threat to its business interests. This awareness apparently came from a combination of prior research and expert advice. For example, in 1979 and 1980, university researcher Andrew Callegari co-authored two peer-reviewed articles acknowledging that ‘the climatic implications of fossil fuel carbon dioxide emissions have been recognized for some time’ [139140]. The authors articulated the ‘climatically huge’ temperature increases and ecological impacts that would result ‘if a significant fraction of the fossil fuel reserve is burned’ (section S5, supplementary information). In 1980, Callegari joined Exxon, and the next year took over its CO2 research efforts [141]. His papers were frequently cited in company publications [97142144].

Figure 3.

Figure 3. Summary of ExxonMobil’s strategic approach to AGW communication. Inside lobbying and outside lobbying are two classes of special interest group spending: inside lobbying is direct access to and contact with those who make and implement public policy, whereas outside lobbying aims to bring the views of the special interest and the pressure of public opinion to bear on decision makers [192129]. Advertorials are one technique of outside lobbying. Quotation sources: ‘public relations value’ [145], ‘opinion leaders’ [146], ’emphasize the uncertainty’ [147].

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Around this time, ExxonMobil set up two parallel initiatives: climate science research, and a complimentary public relations campaign (left and right branches of figure 3). According to a 1978 ‘Request for a credible scientific team,’ these initiatives targeted four audiences: the scientific community, government, Exxon management, and the general public and policymakers [145].

4.1. Scientific community

From approximately 1979 to 1982, the Exxon Research and Engineering (ER&E) Company pursued three major AGW research projects. ExxonMobil’s 2015 statement that two of the projects ‘had nothing to do with CO2 emissions’ [148] is contradicted by internal documents [111149150]. In the early 1980s, these major research initiatives were discontinued amidst budget cuts [111151]. In 1984, ER&E characterized its approaches: ‘Establish a scientific presence through research program in climate modeling; selective support of outside activities; maintain awareness of new scientific developments’ [152]. In 1986, scientist Haroon Kheshgi joined ER&E [153], and was henceforth ExxonMobil’s principal (and only consistent) academic author, co-authoring 72% (52/72) of all analyzed peer-reviewed work (79% since his hiring). Indeed, the metadata title of the ‘Exxon Mobil Contributed Publications’ file is ‘Haroon’s CV’ [15].

4.2. Government

As a 1980 ‘CO2 Greenhouse Communications Plan’ explained, ‘The research is…significant to Exxon since future public decisions aimed at controlling the buildup of atmospheric CO2 could impose limits on fossil fuel combustion’ [146]. The scientific research, a 1982 letter described, helped ‘to provide Exxon with the credentials required to speak with authority in this area’ [99]. ExxonMobil appealed to its research credentials in communications with government officials [84].

4.3. Exxon management

A 1981 ‘Review of Exxon climate research’ observes that ‘projects underway and planned on CO2…are providing an opportunity for us to develop a detailed understanding of the total Federal atmospheric CO2 program which the Corporation needs for its own planning…’ [111].

4.4. Public and policymakers

The company’s climate science research offered ‘great public relations value,’ observed a 1978 memo [145]. In 1980, with input from outside public relations counsel, Exxon developed a ‘CO2 Greenhouse Communications Plan,’ including advertorials, to target ‘opinion leaders who are not scientists’ [146147]. By 1988−9, this plan explicitly aimed to ‘extend the science’ and ‘emphasize the uncertainty in scientific conclusions regarding the potential enhanced Greenhouse effect’ [131147]. That year, 1989, they ran their first AGW advertorial. ExxonMobil’s interest in influencing the non-scientific public and policymakers helps explain our key observation: the discrepancy between internal and academic documents versus advertorials concerning AGW as real, human-caused, serious, and solvable. 

5. Conclusion

Available documents show a discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists and executives discussed about climate change privately and in academic circles and what it presented to the general public. The company’s peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal communications consistently tracked evolving climate science: broadly acknowledging that AGW is real, human-caused, serious, and solvable, while identifying reasonable uncertainties that most climate scientists readily acknowledged at that time. In contrast, ExxonMobil’s advertorials in the NYT overwhelmingly emphasized only the uncertainties, promoting a narrative inconsistent with the views of most climate scientists, including ExxonMobil’s own. This is characteristic of what Freudenberg et al term the Scientific Certainty Argumentation Method (SCAM)—a tactic for undermining public understanding of scientific knowledge [5758]. Likewise, the company’s peer-reviewed, non-peer-reviewed, and internal documents acknowledge the risks of stranded assets, whereas their advertorials do not. In light of these findings, we judge that ExxonMobil’s AGW communications were misleading; we are not in a position to judge whether they violated any laws.

This research was supported by Harvard University Faculty Development Funds and by the Rockefeller Family Fund. The authors have no other relevant financial ties and declare no conflicts of interest.


2 There are, of course, countless additional climate change communications from ExxonMobil that could be included in future work, including archived internal documents, advertorials published in newspapers beyond the NYT, and non-peer-reviewed materials such as speech transcripts, television adverts, patent documents, shareholder reports, and third-party communications (for example, from lobbyists, think-tanks, and politicians funded by ExxonMobil). These documents are potentially important, but are not the focus of the present study.


3 Citation counts were sourced predominantly from Google Scholar and, when occasionally not available there, from Web of Science. IPCC reports and a handful of non-applicable documents, such as drafts, were excluded.

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Read related InsideClimateNews article here

A comprehensive, peer-reviewed academic study of ExxonMobil’s internal deliberations, scientific research and public rhetoric over the decades has confirmed empirically that the oil giant misled the public about what it knew about climate change and the risks posed by fossil fuel emissions,the authors said on Tuesday.

The paper confirms the findings of a 2015 investigative series by InsideClimate News that was based largely on the company’s internal records, and also of independent work published by the Los Angeles Times. That reporting ignited investigations by state attorneys general that are still in litigation….

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