The environmentalist campaign targeting ExxonMobil for its statements on climate change is primarily about the company’s position on public policy, according to a new study authored by an activist closely aligned with the campaign.
Environmental groups have claimed for years that ExxonMobil knew about climate change in the 1970s, but then worked to suppress their own findings. But late Tuesday night, Harvard history professor Naomi Oreskes and her colleague Geoffrey Supran published a report conceding that #ExxonKnew was never really about what Exxon “knew,” but instead was focused on punishing the company for arguing against specific climate policy proposals.
The #ExxonKnew campaign has led to state government probes not only of ExxonMobil, but also a number of free market groups who have opposed sweeping climate policy measures, including cap and trade. Groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, whom state attorneys general have harassed as part of #ExxonKnew, have described the effort as a “campaign to shut down free speech about the climate science debate.”
The Oreskes report concedes that #ExxonKnew was never about whether the company tried to hide climate science from the public, despite how activist groups like InsideClimate News tried to frame the debate.
“Our assessment of ExxonMobil’s peer-reviewed publications and the role of its scientists supports the conclusion that the company did not ‘suppress’ climate science—indeed, it contributed to it,” the authors write.
“The majority of ExxonMobil’s peer-reviewed publications acknowledge that climate change is real and human-caused, and internal documents reflect this scientific framework. Uncertainties are mentioned or even highlighted, but usually in the context of broader scientific understandings and broadly consistent with the evolving science.”
Where the authors take issue with ExxonMobil is not related to the science itself, but rather what the company was saying about policies to address climate change. “We conclude that ExxonMobil contributed to advancing climate science—by way of its scientists’ academic publications—but promoted doubt about it in advertorials,” they write. “Given this discrepancy, we conclude that ExxonMobil misled the public.”
For example, the authors criticize ExxonMobil for advocating against signing the Kyoto protocol, which they say is indicative of the company’s climate denial efforts. But the “advertorials” they cite do not focus on the science of climate change; they largely focus on the economic impact of implementing the international agreement.
The Kyoto protocol was widely opposed because it was a bad policy that would have exempted developing countries like China and India, currently the #1 and #3 greenhouse gas emitters, respectively, from complying with the agreement. That would have placed the United States at a competitive disadvantage, which is why the U.S. Senate preemptively rejected the agreement on a vote of 98 to zero.
Who is Naomi Oreskes?
Naomi Oreskes has been involved in the effort to find a way to prosecute oil companies for years. She’s the author of Merchants of Doubt, a book published in 2010 that attempts to link ExxonMobil to tobacco companies. She’s also on the board of the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI), the group that organized the now infamous 2012 La Jolla Conference with the Union of Concerned Scientists. The New York Times credits Oreskes with conceiving the conference, at which activists hammered out their strategy for bringing down the fossil fuel industry, which eventually became the #ExxonKnew campaign.
At a 2016 forum on Capitol Hill, Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) asked Oreskes if she “had interactions with any of the AGs” that were either investigating or considering investigating ExxonMobil for so-called climate fraud. Oreskes admitted she had been working with the AGs from the beginning:
“Yes, thank you. Thank you for your work. I have. I was invited about a year or so ago to New York to speak to the staff of the New York Attorney Generals’ office mostly about the work we did in Merchants of Doubt … And I also participated a few weeks ago in a meeting in Boston with some colleagues from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which also involved the staff of Attorney Generals offices from a number of states who came to listen to again factual presentations about climate science, history of climate disinformation and also a presentation by Sharon Eubanks who had led the US Department of Justice prosecution of the tobacco industry under the RICO statutes.”
Oreskes was also responsible for helping Rick Heede, also with the Climate Accountability Institute, write articles intended for academic journals that would attribute greenhouse gas emissions to specific companies, thereby building the legal case against ExxonMobil. Or, as the Daily Caller News Foundation put it, “Activists Manipulated Academic Research To Smear Exxon.”
This latest report was co-written by one of Oreskes’ post-doctoral fellows, Geoffrey Supran, a leader in the fossil fuel divestment movement who once published an op-ed in The Guardian under the breathless headline, “Until universities divest from fossil fuels they will undermine all they stand for.” Supran also helped organize the campaign to pressure the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to stop accepting funding from ExxonMobil, a leading employer of Earth scientists.
The AGU looked at the evidence presented by the #ExxonKnew campaign and decided to reject their request.
Supran also co-wrote an op-ed in The Guardian earlier this year alleging that fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil, have “colonized” academia in an effort to thwart action on climate change.
Free Speech Under Attack?
The Oreskes report helps explain why U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker subpoenaed the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other free market groups in addition to ExxonMobil. It explains why New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has changed the justification for his investigation of ExxonMobil three times, but has always remained focused on a company whose position doesn’t quite mesh with his own.
The report even suggests the AGs and their allied activists were never interested in ExxonMobil’s climate research per se – they were merely attempting to punish the company and others for opposing climate policies that environmental groups supported.
Curiously, in announcing her investigation of ExxonMobil, Massachusetts AG Maura Healey made clear that her investigation was not designed to figure out what ExxonMobil knew about climate change, but rather was part of her larger efforts to combat climate change:
“We’re here before you, all committed to combatting climate change and to holding accountable those who have misled the public. The states represented here today have long been working hard to sound the alarm, to put smart policies in place, to speed our transition to a clean energy future, and to stop power plants from emitting millions of tons of dangerous global-warming pollution into our air.”
“Actions indicating that one side of the climate change debate should fear prosecution chills speech in violation of a formerly bi-partisan First Amendment consensus. As expressed by Justice Brandeis, it has been a foundational principle that when faced with “danger flowing from speech … the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 377 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring). Here, the remedy chosen is silence through threat of subpoena. This threat distorts the debate and impoverishes consumers and the general public who may wish to better educate themselves by hearing and evaluating both sides.”
With this latest report, environmental activists and their state AG allies will have a tougher time arguing that their campaign is not about suppressing free speech.