rabble blogs are the personal pages of some of Canada's most insightful progressive activists and commentators. All opinions belong to the writer; however, writers are expected to adhere to our guidelines. We welcome new bloggers -- contact us for details.

Study finds Exxon misled the public by withholding climate knowledge

 Image: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Coal, oil and gas are tremendous resources: solar energy absorbed by plants and super-concentrated over millions of years. They're potent fuels and provide ingredients for valuable products. But the oil boom, spurred by improved drilling technology, came at the wrong time. Profits were (and still are) the priority -- rather than finding the best, most efficient uses for finite resources.

In North America, governments and corporations facilitated infrastructure to get people to use oil and gas as if they were limitless. Companies like Ford built cars bigger than necessary, and although early models ran on ethanol, the oil boom made petroleum the fuel of choice. Public transit systems were removed and governments used tax revenues to accommodate private automobiles rather than buses and trains.

The oil industry fulfilled many of its promises and became the main driver of western economies. It increased mobility and led to job and profit growth in vehicle manufacturing, oil and gas, tourism and fast food, among others. Petroleum-derived plastics made life more convenient.

The industry boom and the car culture it fuelled had negative consequences, though -- including injuries and death, rapid resource exploitation, pollution and climate change. Plastics are choking oceans and land.

Are these unintended consequences? When did people learn burning large quantities of fossil fuels might be doing more harm than good? Evidence suggests scientists, governments and industry knew all along there would be a steep price to pay for our excesses.

In the late 1800s, Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius warned that burning fossil fuels and increasing carbon dioxide emissions would initiate feedback loops and increase water vapour in the atmosphere, causing global temperatures to rise.

There's a reason for that: According to volumes of research by journalists, investigators and academics -- including a new peer-reviewed study -- some of industry's largest players have long been deceiving the public about climate science.

The new study, by Harvard's Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes and published in Environmental Research Letters, analyzes 40 years of research and communications by Exxon Mobil. "Our findings are clear: Exxon Mobil misled the public about the state of climate science and its implications," Oreskes and Supran write in a New York Times opinion article. "Available documents show a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what Exxon Mobil's scientists and executives discussed about climate change in private and in academic circles, and what it presented to the general public."

Taking up Exxon's challenge to "Read all of these documents and make up your own mind," the researchers examined the company's scientific research, internal memos and paid public-facing "advertorials." They concluded that, although the company knew of and communicated internally about its product's climate impacts and the danger of it becoming a "stranded asset," it told the public a different story.

Exxon placed paid opinion articles in The New York Times between 1989 and 2004, at a cost of $31,000 US each. Contrary to the company's own research and internal communications -- as well as overwhelming scientific evidence from around the world -- the articles argued, among other things, that, "The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil," and, "We still don't know what role man-made greenhouse gases might play in warming the planet."

Oreskes and Supran also note Exxon is being sued by current and former employees and investigated by the New York and Massachusetts attorneys general and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. Much relates to whether the company "misled consumers, shareholders or the public about the environmental or business risks of climate change, or about the risk that oil and gas reserves might become stranded assets that won't be developed, affecting shareholder value."

Given climate change's serious implications, the fact that fossil fuel companies, aided by compromised governments and shady "think tanks" and media outlets, would put fossil fuel profits ahead of human health and survival is an intergenerational crime against humanity. We should commend Oreskes and others for their tireless efforts to bring this truth to light.

Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation Senior Editor Ian Hanington. David Suzuki’s latest book is Just Cool It!: The Climate Crisis and What We Can Do (Greystone Books), co-written with Ian Hanington.

Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

Image: Flickr/Mike Mozart

Like this article? rabble is reader-supported journalism. Chip in to keep stories like these coming.

Thank you for reading this story...

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all. But media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our only supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help.

If everyone who visits rabble and likes it chipped in a couple of dollars per month, our future would be much more secure and we could do much more: like the things our readers tell us they want to see more of: more staff reporters and more work to complete the upgrade of our website.

We’re asking if you could make a donation, right now, to set rabble on solid footing in 2017.

Make a donation.Become a monthly supporter.

Comments

We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:

Do

  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.

Don't

  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.