Exxon-Mobil, the poster child of the US ‘military-petroleum complex’, is under attack over the claims of a new research study that indicates the shocking accuracy of its confidential internal climate change predictions, signaling the duplicity of its own public campaign denying climate change.
The research study conducted jointly between researchers from Harvard University & the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, through the means of a systematic assessment, shows for the first time the accuracy of previously unreported forecasts created by Exxon-funded researchers & scientists from as early as the late 1970s. The research was conducted to understand exactly what Exxon knew about the issue of climate change and what level of scientific understanding they had at this time. The lead author Geoffrey Supran, former research fellow in the History of Science at Harvard, said the following in an interview conducted by The Harvard Gazette,
“What we found is that between 1977 and 2003, excellent scientists within Exxon modeled and predicted global warming with, frankly, shocking skill and accuracy only for the company to then spend the next couple of decades denying that very climate science.”Geoffrey Supran
This research adds an almost unimpeachable evidence to the larger #ExxonKnew climate activism movement, which for years had advocated for the corporation to own up to its knowledge of fossil fuel led climate change – something it has not only been accused of knowing before any other major corporation, but also for funding a public campaign to debase its possibility. Exxon continues to deny these allegations.
How Accurate Were Exxon’s Predictions?
The team of researchers took into use statistical techniques established by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to test the performance of global-warming projection models created by Exxon’s scientists. When compared to the existing metric, these projections models were found to have 63-83 percent consistency with actual temperature increase over time.
Prediction-based models are often given a ‘skill-score’ to show how well a forecast compares to real life occurrence – in case of the Exxon models, the average ‘skill-score’ was 72 percent – with the highest scoring 99 percent. Just to put it in comparison, the global warming predictions made by NASA scientist James Hansen – which made climate-change a public issue for the first time – had skill-scores between 38 to 66 percent. The predictions therefore were more accurate and skillful than forecasts made by independent academic and government scientists of that time. The minds behind the study went on to plot the data they extrapolated in the form of a graph for wider public understanding of this revelation,
This study therefore acts as a ‘smoking gun’ in revealing Exxon’s awareness of the threat of carbon emission on climate change, as in the words of co-author & Harvard Professor Naomi Oreskes, it ‘shows the skillful, sophisticated and deep degree of understanding’ that Exxon of the repercussions of its own actions on future of the world.
Did Exxon Knowingly Mislead The Public?
The findings of the recent research acts as a missing piece in the larger jigsaw of a debate that began in 2015 following news reports of the company’s internal documents which revealed the oil giant’s early awareness of climate science. When Exxon was forced to respond to this crisis, it denied the claim by releasing decades of internal studies and memos from its own scientists urging academia to find out for its own the lack of defensible evidence.
This when extensive research started pouring in, including Supran & Oreskes who analyzed 40 years of Exxon’s climate communications in 2017 to show a systematic discrepancy between the duality of Exxon’s stance internally & in the academic circles versus towards the public. They found out that while 80% of the company’s academic and internal papers argued that climate change was real, man-made and accelerating – 81% of its advertorial materials targeted towards the public relating to climate change cast doubt on the reality of the phenomenon.
Around this time, the larger causal relationship of such a duality rose up – where in 2021 the team published a new study which used algorithmic techniques to show how Exxon used subtle but systematic language to shape popular discourse about climate change.
Oreskes had previously hinted at this misleading tendency of the corporation to have had adequate foresight into the threat of carbon emissions on climate change and yet waging a disinformation campaign about the problem, in her bestselling title “Merchants of Doubt”.
This entire debate was further fueled when Lenny Bernstein, a climate expert who worked with the firm for 30 years, provided a pinpoint of how climate change first emerged on the company’s radar in 1981 while conducting an assessment of the development of a natural gas field off Indonesia.
According to Bernstein, the company took the impact of climate change into account to predict business operation risks beyond this point, and while the world was still debating the ‘preposterous’ claim of climate change originating as a public issue, it silently continued funding climate science with its own economic calculation in mind.
As the importance of climate change began to expand in terms of being a public issue, so did Exxon’s duality on the issue. Exxon maintained a consistent public position of continued refusal and passivity in acknowledging the dangers of climate change. According to Greenpeace, Exxon spent more than 30 million dollars (equivalent to 3 crore rupees without adjusting for currency inflation) on think tanks and research that promoted climate denial.
Later, Exxon also started promoting climate contrarian researchers who state that climate change processes occur primarily by unconventional methods – and not by the generally regarded greenhouse gas emission-induced process. This clearly adds another layer to Exxon’s stance on climate change – an attempt to ensure that its practices do not get dragged into the mix.
The new research only adds further concern to the worries of Exxon. Ever since the climate activism movement picked up against the corporation it has been dumped with a long line of lawsuits from citizens who blame it directly for the impacts of climate change – such as rising sea levels. Oil companies have always maintained notorious reputations, from the stakes they have had previously held in everything ranging from political coups to environmental disaster coverups.
This new research has the potential to tip the scales against them. Experts are drawing parallels between the current integrity crisis of the oil companies to the duality of Tobacco companies in the 50s, who had conclusive evidence of tobacco causing cancer and yet they continued claiming that it did not.
While Exxon defends itself by claiming that the predictions they had conducted were based on very early scientific methods and had no conclusive authority to verify its subjectivity. However this still does not clear the air around why they decided to make climate change analysis a major tool in conducting risk assessments of their existing and future business interests despite not trusting the validity of the science behind it – and on what grounds of deniability can they oppose their dual stance on climate change as has been indicated by research.
While the oil companies still refuse any allegation made against them – over time they have had to reveal information under pressure of public scrutiny, and this hints at the growing impact of climate activism.
The ‘oil-lobby’ of the US, of which Exxon-Mobil is a huge part of, is known of having significant pull in the US Congress. For years, the oil lobby has been pushing against larger integrations of non-renewable energy and has been denying the growing concerns around climate change. In light of recent findings, the #ExxonKnew Movement can have larger political implications – including protests, demands for further investigations on Big Oil companies and congressional sweeps. Exxon’s depleting public image can also affect USA’s position as the number one producer of oil in the world.
The case of ExxonMobil is also an interesting reflection of private-funded or corporate research itself. Corporations care and fund for these research only keeping their business calculations in mind – environmental impacts are important to corporations only to the extent that they affect profits. Once that purpose is fulfilled, its inferential implications for the larger ‘good’ is rejected, and often denied.
Climate Change is a scientific phenomenon, and actionable knowledge on it is possible only if its concerning research maintains scientific integrity, and is shared with the public if possibilities of larger implications arise – and not be pushed into the filing cabinets of major corporations.