How Does ExxonMobil Attack Climate Science? Let Me Count the Ways

, climate accountability campaign manager | October 18, 2016, 10:01 am EST
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ExxonMobil currently scores at the bottom of the scale—“egregious”—on nearly every metric of involvement with climate disinformation.

Now the company has asked a federal court to throw out a subpoena by New York state attorney general Eric Schneiderman, which seeks information about whether ExxonMobil committed fraud by knowingly deceiving shareholders and the public about the realities and risks of climate change.

AG Schneiderman and others are investigating ExxonMobil for fraud given evidence suggesting the company knew about climate risks but withheld them from their investors, decision makers, and the public

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating ExxonMobil for fraud based on evidence suggesting the company knew about climate risks but sowed doubt among its investors, decision makers, and the public.

ExxonMobil’s accompanying press release had one statement in particular that caught my eye:

“ExxonMobil stressed in the filing that for more than a decade, it has widely and publicly confirmed that it recognizes the risk of climate change and its potential impacts on society and ecosystems.”

Along with several of my colleagues here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, I’ve recently completed an in-depth analysis of the climate-related positions and actions of ExxonMobil and seven other leading fossil fuel companies. Our study focused on the period from January 2015 through May 2016, so let’s fact-check ExxonMobil’s claim that it now acknowledges climate risks.

Has ExxonMobil, as its press release implies, made a clean break from disinformation on climate science and policy?

Unfortunately, no. Not even close. Here’s what we found:

Accuracy and consistency of public statements on climate change: Egregious

We assessed the scientific accuracy and consistency of companies’ direct communications with the public about climate change, including whether they affirm the need for swift and deep reductions in emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

ExxonMobil stands out for actively disparaging climate science in its public statements.

While the company makes a clear statement acknowledging climate science and the risks of climate change on its website, CEO Rex Tillerson has repeatedly misrepresented basic climate science in public statements by casting doubt on the accuracy and competency of climate models.

At the company’s 2015 annual meeting, Tillerson argued that the world should wait to improve its understanding of climate science before taking action. At its 2016 annual meeting, Tillerson repeated his assertion that climate models are not accurate. Tillerson’s argument—that uncertainties over specific model projections should serve as a rationale for inaction in reducing emissions—belies ExxonMobil’s claim that it accepts the scientific evidence on climate change. Tillerson is next up to deliver a keynote address tomorrow at the Oil and Money conference in London, where climate change is barely on the agenda and oil executives are set to focus on maintaining business as usual.

This downplaying of climate science could have far-reaching consequences, by undermining the goal set by world leaders in Paris last December to limit the increase in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

All eight companies studied in The Climate Accountability Scorecard can and must do more to distance themselves from the spread of climate disinformation.

All eight companies studied in The Climate Accountability Scorecard can and must do more to distance themselves from the spread of climate disinformation.

We also looked at ExxonMobil’s affiliation—through membership or leadership positions—with key trade associations and industry groups that spread disinformation on climate science or misrepresent the possible effects of climate policies.

Affiliation with American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC): Egregious

ALEC is a lobbying group that brings together state lawmakers and companies to draft sample legislation that can be introduced in state legislatures across the country.

Many of these bills have been aimed at dismantling effective state policies that reduce carbon pollution and accelerate the transition to clean energy, and at obstructing state compliance with EPA limits on carbon emissions. ALEC has engaged with state legislators in secretive meetings sponsored by fossil fuel and utility interests and has regularly given climate deniers a speaking platform at its annual meeting, as recently as 2015.

ExxonMobil US Government Affairs Manager Cynthia Bergman is a member of ALEC’s Private Enterprise Council as of 2016, and the company has not taken any steps to distance itself from climate disinformation spread by the group.

Affiliation with American Petroleum Institute (API): Egregious

API is the largest oil trade association in the United States and has a long history of communicating climate science disinformation, as exemplified by the notorious internal strategy memo written by an API task force in 1998—a roadmap of the fossil fuel industry’s plan to deliberately cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science.

The API’s online briefing on climate and energy emphasizes uncertainties in climate science. While API recently formed a task force to revisit its messaging on climate change, it has long opposed taxing emissions of heat-trapping gases and sought to block limits on carbon pollution such as those in the EPA Clean Power Plan.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson was on the API board of directors as of 2014, and the company has not taken any steps to distance itself from climate disinformation spread by the group.

Affiliation with National Association of Manufacturers (NAM): Egregious

NAM is the largest manufacturing trade association in the United States. It has questioned the validity of climate science and the burning of fossil fuels as the primary source of heat-trapping emissions.

NAM’s comment on the EPA Clean Power Plan criticized “the failure to disclose and quantify key uncertainties involved in the modeling” and “the failure to incorporate potential benefits associated with increased temperatures,” and it has joined the federal lawsuit opposing the plan.

ExxonMobil Vice President Neil A. Chapman is on the NAM board of directors as of 2016, and the company has not taken any steps to distance itself from climate disinformation spread by the group.

Affiliation with US Chamber of Commerce: Poor

The US Chamber is an umbrella business association that claims to represent the interests of the business community. Few companies publicly agree, however, with the group’s controversial positions on climate change, including its refusal as recently as 2015 to acknowledge that global warming is human-caused.

The US Chamber’s priorities include opposing the EPA’s efforts to regulate heat-trapping emissions under the Clean Air Act and challenging the science-based finding that global warming pollution endangers public health, on which the legislation rests.

ExxonMobil reported contributing $1,000,000 to the US Chamber in both 2014 and 2015, and has not taken any steps to distance itself from climate disinformation spread by the group.

Affiliation with the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA): Egregious

WSPA is the top lobbyist for the oil industry in the western United States and the oldest petroleum trade association in the country. WSPA serves as a key organizer of opposition to California’s groundbreaking climate policies, including the state’s low-carbon fuel standard and its AB32 plan that requires a sharp reduction in carbon emissions by 2020.

WSPA made headlines in summer 2015 for spreading blatantly false statements about California’s proposed limits on carbon emissions from cars and trucks. The association employed deceptive ads on more than one occasion to block the “half the oil” provisions of a major clean-energy bill enacted by California lawmakers.

ExxonMobil Refinery manager Max Ocansey was a member of the WSPA board of directors as of 2014, and the company has not taken any steps to distance itself from climate disinformation spread by the group.

Learn more and take action

For details of our analysis, read The Climate Accountability Scorecard: Ranking Major Fossil Fuel Companies on Climate Deception, Disclosure and Action and the ExxonMobil fact sheet.

And join with UCS in calling on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to stop disparaging climate science.

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