New Study Decodes ExxonMobil’s ‘Modern’ Climate Misinformation

By Sharon Kelly, an attorney and freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, The Nation, National Wildlife, Earth Island Journal, and a variety of other publications. Originally published at DeSmog Blog

What’s the single word that fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil’s flagship environmental reports to investors and the public tie most closely to climate change and global warming?

According to newly published research from Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes and Harvard research associate Geoffrey Supran, it’s a simple four-letter word, one that carries overtones not only of danger, but also — crucially — of uncertainty: risk.

Oreskes and Supran argue in the peer-reviewed study published in the journal One Earth, that by repeating that word over and over as it discusses climate change ExxonMobil continues to connect climate change to uncertainty, even in its most carefully worded and most scrutinized discussions of the topic.

That tiny word is one sign of a massive change underway in how fossil fuel companies talk about climate change in places where it’s no longer considered credible to contest climate science. Instead, Oreskes and Supran write, ExxonMobil’s statements subtly shift responsibility for climate change onto the shoulders of consumers, while avoiding the need to describe in detail the risks that are posed by climate change.

And that, for the record, is a lot to gloss over — not just in terms of what scientists predict about the future, but in terms of what climate change has already played a role in bringing about. Last year, for example, tied with 2016 as the “warmest” year on record, according to NASA — 2020 brought a brutal drumbeat of climate-linked calamities, including a record-obliterating wildfire season on the West Coast that memorably turned skies orange and red and an extraordinarily intense Atlantic hurricane season.

The way that ExxonMobil talks about climate change, the paper suggests, lets the company thread a very specific rhetorical needle, communicating two ideas that fundamentally benefit their interests. “On the one hand, ‘risk’ rhetoric is weak enough to allow the company to maintain a position on climate science that is ambiguous, flexible, and unalarming,” the researchers write. “On the other, it is strong enough—and prominent enough, in [New York Times] advertorials and elsewhere—that ExxonMobil may claim that the public has been well informed about [anthropogenic global warming].”

And if that approach feels a little familiar, maybe that’s because it’s very similar to the tactics used by another industry in the past: Big Tobacco.

“Akin to early, tepidly worded warning labels on cigarette packages, ExxonMobil’s advertorials in America’s newspaper of record help establish this claim, sometimes explicitly: ‘Most people acknowledge that human-induced climate change is a long-term risk,’ a 2001 advertorial states (emphases added),” the paper continues. “‘The risk of climate change and its potential impacts on society and the ecosystem are widely recognized,’ says another the following year.”

And that’s just one example of the ways that ExxonMobil’s favored ideas about climate change — ideas like “we are all to blame” or “society must inevitably rely on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future” — can become embedded in conventional wisdom and creep into how people think and talk about climate change, the paper argues.

While the new paper is hardly the first to draw parallels between the fossil fuel and tobacco industries, what sets it apart is how the research was done.

“Our analysis is the first computational study illustrating how the fossil fuel industry has encouraged and embodied AGW [anthropogenic global warming] narratives fixated on individual responsibility,” the paper says. The study used automated methods to analyze 180 ExxonMobil documents, 32 previously published internal company documents, and 76 New York Times “advertorials” where the company took positions on climate change. The authors believe that these methods of efficiently reviewing a large number of company records could prove useful later in litigation, where larger batches of documents may need review.

The number of climate liability lawsuits worldwide and in the U.S. continues to grow. A January 2021 United Nations report tallied 1,200 cases in the U.S. and 350 other lawsuits in nearly 40 other jurisdictions worldwide — nearly double the number of lawsuits underway three years ago by the report authors’ count. Not all of those cases involve ExxonMobil — but some of the highest profile lawsuits include those filed by state attorneys general and state and local governments alleging that the company misled investors or consumers or others.

Supran and Oreskes have both assisted with legal briefs or served as expert witnesses in climate liability cases, but in an email to DeSmog, Supran noted that virtually all of that work has been done pro bono (with the sole exception that Oreskes once billed 3.5 hours for her work reviewing the historical accuracy of allegations in one 2017 case). Supran called their work and testimony in climate liability cases “a logical application of our knowledge and expertise.”

ExxonMobil did not respond to a request for comment about their study from DeSmog.

‘Injecting Uncertainty’

As it has become less credible to contest the legitimacy of climate science, the paper notes, the company has shifted its rhetoric on climate to focus on “risk.”

“In ExxonMobil Corp’s 2005 Corporate Citizenship Report, for instance, which extensively questions whether AGW is human caused and serious, a member of the public [is quoted asking]: ‘Why won’t ExxonMobil recognize that climate change is real…?’,” Oreskes and Supran write. “The company replies: ‘ExxonMobil recognizes the risk of climate change and its potential impact’ (emphases added).”

That subtle shift lets ExxonMobil “inject uncertainty” into conversations about climate change, the paper continues, “even while superficially appearing not to.”

“We have also observed that, starting in the mid-2000s, ExxonMobil’s statements of explicit doubt about climate science and its implications (for example, that ‘there does not appear to be a consensus among scientists about the effect of fossil fuel use on climate’) gave way to implicit acknowledgments couched in ambiguous statements about climate ‘risk’ (such as discussion of lower-carbon fuels for ‘addressing the risks posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions,’ without mention of [anthropogenic global warming]),” the paper reports.

It’s also a way of talking that also lets ExxonMobil leave out any description of what, exactly, is being put at risk, the paper notes.

The company’s public messaging pits clear-cut descriptions of the benefits of using fossil fuels against the risks of climate change — but while it offers examples of the ways people find fossil fuels useful, ExxonMobil is a lot more vague about what, exactly, the risks associated with climate change are, the paper argues.

Communications strategies similar to those described in Oreskes and Supran’s new research have drawn pushback on Twitter.

That’s not for a lack of available scientific data. “Today, we are at 1.2 degrees of warming and already witnessing unprecedented climate extremes and volatility in every region and on every continent,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres said in a December 2020 address. “The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030.”

The biggest remaining questions about climate change don’t concern the ways that our lives will be increasingly disrupted by extreme weather, wildfires, rising seas and the like. There’s a strong body of scientific evidence that lets scientists make good predictions about what happens when we collectively burn fossil fuels at different rates. And a peer-reviewed study published last year in the journal Geophysical Research found that climate models dating back to the 1970s through 2007 have proved remarkably accurate

The biggest open questions are about policy and products, not about what the science shows.

The real source of uncertainty, in other words, is how long we will continue doing the things that cause climate change.

‘Modern’ Propaganda’

Polling shows that Americans’ understandings of climate science have shifted dramatically in recent years. In 2014, NBC News recently reported, less than half of Americans polled believed that climate change was caused by human activity. Polls from 2020, however, show that now 57 percent of Americans cite human activity as causing climate change, a jump of roughly ten percent.

But there may still be times and places where not only is discussion of risk familiar and habitually framed in terms of risk management, but also where ExxonMobil’s framing might find a particularly receptive audience.

Asked by DeSmog, Supran said that investors may be particularly vulnerable to what he called ExxonMobil’s “fossil fuel savior” framing.

“Within this frame, the company is an innocent supplier, simply giving consumers what they demand. That is, ExxonMobil are the good guys who we should trust to address the climate risks that we, the public, brought upon ourselves,” he said. “It’s also worth noting that these modern forms of propaganda are increasingly subtle and insidious, and so being exposed to them ad nauseam, as shareholders are, could make them more vulnerable to this ‘discursive grooming’.”

Going forward, the new paper predicts that companies like ExxonMobil may continue to rely on the strategies developed by the tobacco industry.

“In their public relations messaging, industry asserts smokers’ rights as individuals who are at liberty to smoke,” the paper says. “In the context of litigation, industry asserts that those who choose to smoke are solely to blame for their injuries.”

“ExxonMobil’s framing is reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s effort ‘to diminish its own responsibility (and culpability) by casting itself as a kind of neutral innocent, buffeted by the forces of consumer demand,’” it continues. “It is widely recognized that the tobacco industry used, and continues to use, narrative frames of personal responsibility—often marketed as ‘freedom of choice’—to combat public criticism, influence policy debates, and defend against litigation and regulation.”

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  1. Peter

    The leaders at Exxon are simply put, criminals and deceit masters. But in talking about “risk” – there is a risk that climate change is real and it is larger than climate change not being real. If the risk of climate change was 5% – the lowest risk I have seen by knowledgeable. qualified people is 20%-30%. This the classic fat tail risk situation example, yes some things risk maybe only 5% but the destruction that would be caused by climate change is too risky even if the probability was less than 1%. Since it is already happening all around the world – this is a WAR for our planet so we can live on it – Exxom leaders absolutely know they are lying and have been doing so for decades are no different than war criminals – they have killed millions over the decades from pollution, cancer etc.

    1. Greg

      They are genocidal lunatics and we should be thinking nuremberg level of response to that, along with global response to the change we’ve locked in. Instead we’re pondering whether our next car will be electric or not.

  2. Arcturus

    “The science is crystal clear: to limit temperature rise to 1.5-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the world needs to decrease fossil fuel production by roughly 6 per cent every year between now and 2030.”

    The hubris in the above statement is simply mind boggling, and from the U.N. Secretary General no less. Let’s start by acknowledging that a climate model is not “science” and the old adage “sh*t in, sh*t out” is as relevant as it ever was.

    1. topcat

      A very strange comment of you don’t mind me saying.
      Why is a climate model not scientific? Models of systems are mathematical representations which can be used predictively, climate models are one such model. Perhaps you would rather they were categorised under “physics” rather than “science” ? As far as I know physicists used to be regarded, in general, as scientists.
      As the piece states, many of the predictions of the 70’s era models are quite close to reality, that does not seem sh*t in sh*t out to me.

      1. Arcturus

        A climate model is just a way of processing a bunch of assumptions to generate possible outcomes. It’s only scientific in the sense that it’s better than scribbling on the back of an envelope, but it is certainly not science.

        The idea that 70’s era climate models are “quite close to reality” is pure revisionism! I was a kid in the 70’s and I very clearly remember that at the time it was believed that we were heading for a new ice age. There was not a peep about global warming.

        Remember back in 2006 when Al Gore said that the Arctic could be ice free by 2012 and the WWF’s later claim in 2008 that it could be ice free by 2013. How did that work out? Presumably those claims were based on the output of some climate model or other, or maybe Al was just a back of the envelope kind of guy and conveniently not very good at math. Remember Michael Mann et al’s “hockey stick”? Lots of climate modelling there! The fact that people still listen to that guy speaks volumes! Short term hyperbolic climate predictions that go beyond the slow and relatively steady increase in temperature since the end of the mini ice age have such a poor record that now they are all pushed far enough into the future that the claim will be well and truly forgotten when the time comes.

        We can barely model traffic and are appalling at modelling the economy, so I would call it the height of hubris that we are so very, very sure that we can model climate down to 0.1 of a degree over a decade. We can’t even predict El Nino and La Nina events with any accuracy and have to wait until we see signature events that are themselves not understood. Anyone who believes or has ever claimed that “the science is settled” or that it is “crystal clear” is either ignorant or a liar. Some can be described as settled, but it remains opaque.

        Sadly, the climate change “debate” has become a mob event, but even more sadly it’s about to be joined by an even more catastrophic and somewhat related mob event: modern monetary theory! Madness can only be financed by even greater madness!

        Buckle up, because the coming decade will be the most challenging decade in all of our lives!

        1. Aumua

          It’s been a while since we’ve had a nice list of boilerplate climate change denial talking points here. Thanks for assembling one for us! And for throwing in a jab at MMT too, bravo sir. I know the right wing-o-sphere has been gibbering about it lately so it’s not that big a surprise to see it repeated here.

          1. Arcturus

            Sadly it seems that the most alarmist true believers have the lowest level of actual knowledge. In my personal experience there have been no exceptions to this rule, so thank you for avoiding substance and keeping the slate clean.

            MMT, also known as the Magic Money Tree, would be absolutely hilarious, if it weren’t for the fact that its consequences will be so dire. It will hurt most those that the true believers think it will help. Just look at the results so far. Assets of all kinds are skyrocketing in nominal value, creating an ever widening void between those that have and those that have not.

            When something doesn’t fit neatly with your ideological view of the world, you really should try and move beyond resorting to cheap platitudes like “denial” and “right wing”. If that’s all you’ve got, you’ve got nothing!

            1. Aumua

              You’re right, I’m not engaging you with substance or arguments because I think it’s a complete waste of time, and no matter what I say you’ll be back next week with the same list of debunked points, as if this conversation never happened.

              1. Arcturus

                And there it is, the final resting place for climate alarmists, virtue seekers and progressives generally: nadir!

    2. Aumua

      No, hubris is assuming that the human species is incapable of such a massive blunder, sir. That we are destined by God to act as we will towards the natural world without consequence.

        1. Aumua

          Thanks for sharing, but I do believe that is where a lot of global warming denial is coming from.

  3. Rod

    thanks for getting this out there.
    The more people realize the extent they are ‘being played’ the more profound the backlash will be,imo.

    But until that Backlash starts, the clock doesn’t stop nor the CC momentum pause.

  4. Susan the other

    Every oil interest on the planet is aggressively looking for new wells and sources to claim. It is not because they can read some future oil boom, but because they assume no other form of energy will replace oil for some things. Like firing furnaces for steel smelting. Like fueling enormous construction and mining vehicles. A long list of things. And that is true as far as we know today. Oil is essential. If anything, these guys are vying for position. If an oil company has the backing of people and politicians they will be given an advantage. So it’s PR time. But on the other side of obvious PR is reality. Demographics. The world is slowing down. Populations are declining. Science is finding all sorts of new and cleaner efficiencies. The undeniable imperative is sustainability, etc. The oil companies need to downsize. They know it. But they don’t want governments to get too carried away. The most obvious entrenched interest is gasoline/cars. When cars are all small and electric the oil companies will maybe have about half the profits they had before. And that means, per Gail Tverberg, that they won’t be making enough money to pump oil, let alone reinvest. Oil companies will still be essential, but they’ll all need help to remain going concerns. If we don’t want to subsidize them lavishly and pointlessly, we should nationalize them.

  5. topcat

    “… we should nationalize them” indeed Susan, we should and, as their profits fall and their propensity to spend all of their free cash flow on share buybacks increases we will indeed be forced to.

  6. R.k. Barkhi

    Thanks 4 the article. One thing i would add is the prevalence of corporate trolls n shills (shrills) on these types of discussions. This strongly suggests fossil fuel companies concern n attention to managing n redirecting the climate conversation. They are using the tried n true methods we saw during the 9/11 debates like verbal abuse n irrelevant “arguments” like CO2 is good 4 plants, the earth was warmer millions of years ago, only anti capitalist socialists believe this stuff, etc.

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