Geoffrey Supran, the co-author of a Harvard study accusing ExxonMobil of conspiring to conceal the effects of carbon emissions, recently presented his findings to the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights. But after being sworn in, the professor omitted key information from the panel, most notably about the criticism his research has faced.
Supran published his heavily criticized study, coauthored by Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes, in 2017. Professor Oreskes has been involved in the effort to undermine Exxon for years and was cited by the New York Times as an architect of the infamous 2012 conference in La Jolla, Calif., where activists devised their playbook for taking on energy industry. An Energy In Depth investigation of their study found that Supran and Oreskes omitted evidence and mischaracterized their data in order to advance their pre-determined narrative.
Supran’s forty-five minute testimony outlined the ways he believes ExxonMobil acted in bad faith, accusing Exxon of creating an “ecosystem of influence” to advance its messaging. But it was after his testimony had concluded, when members of commission questioned Supran, that his presentation went from a standard statement of activist talking points to a glossed over pageantry of his study’s real-world reception.
The commissioners asked why Supran targeted ExxonMobil and whether there had been any pushback:
Commissioner Leah Tanodra-Armamento: “I would just like to ask, why is this paper focused on Exxon only? What about the other carbon majors? Is this paper representative of the attitude of all carbon majors?”
Supran: “This study was specifically focused on ExxonMobil and could not be extrapolated immediately to apply to every other company in precisely the same way. We decided to focus on ExxonMobil in part because it has been particularly well known amongst those who study the history of fossil fuel companies, that ExxonMobil has perpetuated and funded climate denial. The other reason was a significant increase in the availability, recently, of internal documents of ExxonMobil. These were unearthed by investigative journalists at various news outlets”
Commissioner Gwendolyn Pimentel-Gana: “What has Exxon said about your research. Did they comment on it?”
In his response, Supran all but admitted to investigating ExxonMobil in order to reinforce his foregone conclusions about the company. More importantly, when given the opportunity to share critiques of his report, Supran omitted an expert rebuttal to his research, delivered by the very professor whose methods served as the basis for Mr. Supran’s study. Instead, he simply stated that the company had issued a couple of statements.
Kimberly A. Neuendorf, Ph.D., a Cleveland State University professor with over 40 years’ experience in the field, eviscerated Supran’s study not long after publication, writing:
“I have concluded that S&O’s [Supran’s and Oreskes’] content analysis does not support the study’s conclusion because of a variety of fundamental errors in their analysis. S&O’s content analysis lacks reliability, validity, objectivity, generalizability and replicability.” (emphasis added)
She added, “These basic standards of scientific inquiry are vital for a proper content analysis, but they are not satisfied by the S&O study.” Neuendorf believes that Oreskes and Supran had already made up their minds about the issue years earlier, with one of them even announcing their conclusion on Twitter in 2015 – years before the study was published.
Supran omitted this vital piece of information from the Commission on Human Rights, despite his full knowledge of the report. In a March interview with Law360, Supran called Neuendorf’s rebuttal “expert-for-hire doubt mongering” because it was conducted at the request of ExxonMobil.
Recently, Supran’s study was further undermined when the New York Times Magazine published an entire issue dedicated to climate change, which concluded that #EveryoneKnew about climate change as far back as the 1970s, undercutting the central argument of the #ExxonKnew campaign. Activists who have spent years pushing the #ExxonKnew narrative were caught off guard by the article, and have scrambled to minimize the damage.
Ironically, while testifying under oath about the ExxonMobil’s lack of transparency around the effects of climate change, Supran refused to be fully transparent about the criticism of his work. Supran could have used the opportunity to address that criticism and explain why he disagreed with it. Instead, he simply omitted it altogether.