By Elliott Negin
ExxonMobil spokesman Richard Keil told a carefully worded whopper last week.
After the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) revealed that Exxon was aware of the threat posed by climate change as early as 1981 and has intentionally been deceiving the public for decades, reporters contacted Keil for comment. One reporter asked him about ExxonMobil's long history of funding climate change denier groups.
In 1981 Exxon knew about #climatechange. For 27 more years they funded #fakescience. http://t.co/9W7IOxmHup 1/2 pic.twitter.com/7VQhtdg47Z
— Greenpeace (@Greenpeace) July 9, 2015
"I'm here to talk to you about the present," Keil said. "We have been factoring the likelihood of some kind of carbon tax into our business planning since 2007. We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change."
ExxonMobil no longer funds climate change deniers?! Is that right?
Technically, perhaps, because practically no one can say with a straight face that global warming isn't happening anymore. Most, if not all, of the people who used to deny the reality of climate change have morphed into climate science deniers. They now concede that climate change is real, but reject the scientific consensus that human activity—mainly burning fossil fuels—is driving it. Likewise, they understate the potential consequences, contend that we can easily adapt to them, and fight government efforts to curb carbon emissions and promote renewable energy.
ExxonMobil is still funding those folks, big time.
Keil said he wanted to talk about the present, so why don't we? According to the most recent publicly available data, last year ExxonMobil spent $659,000 on congressional climate-science-denier political campaigns and $1.9 million on 15 denier think tanks, advocacy groups and trade associations for a total of $2.56 million. Meanwhile, between 2007—when Keil said ExxonMobil began to factor in the ramifications of a carbon tax—and 2014, the company spent at least $10 million on climate science denier organizations to spread disinformation and undermine efforts to address climate change.
ExxonMobil Claimed it Stopped Funding Deniers Eight Years Ago
This isn't the first time ExxonMobil has denied it was sponsoring a climate disinformation campaign.
Back in 2007, a UCS report revealed that the oil giant had shelled out at least $16 million between 1998 and 2005 to a network of more than 40 climate denier think tanks and advocacy groups to advance its agenda. Widely covered by the news media, the report prompted ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to acknowledge that his company had a PR problem. "We recognize that we need to soften our public image," he said, according to a January 10 story in Greenwire, a trade publication. "It is something we are working on."
A month later, just after the release of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fourth Assessment Report, an ExxonMobil official followed through on Tillerson's promise to temper the company's position.
"There is no question that human activity is the source of carbon dioxide emissions," Kenneth Cohen, vice president of public affairs, told Greenwire on Feb. 9. "The appropriate debate isn't on whether climate is changing, but rather should be on what we should be doing about it." But what about the 40-plus ExxonMobil grantees UCS identified in its report? Cohen told Greenwire that the company had stopped funding them.
In fact, the company did not stop funding them. ExxonMobil's documented support for denier groups did peak at $3.48 million in 2005, when the company began to cut off grantees. That year, it severed ties with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and over the next two years, it dropped a number of others, including the Cato Institute, Frontiers of Freedom, George C. Marshall Institute, Heartland Institute and Institute for Energy Research.
The company's funding to denier groups, however, remained substantial, second only to the Koch brothers' war chest. The company spent nearly $21 million from 1998 through 2006 and some $10 million from 2007 through 2014. Last year, the company paid out $1.9 million to 15 denier groups, including 10 cited in the 2007 UCS report.
The Disinformation Campaign Continues ExxonMobil's climate science denier network may have shrunk since 2007, but the 15 groups currently in the company's stable, including the American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Manhattan Institute and National Black Chamber of Commerce, are still doing their best to sow doubt about climate science and denigrate renewable energy.
Let's take a quick look at what these four emblematic groups are doing.
The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which has received $1.9 million from ExxonMobil since 2007, has played a relatively bit part in the climate and energy debate and, to its credit, has hosted some well-publicized forums on the pros and cons of a carbon tax. Even so, some of its prominent scholars are still pumping out disinformation. Two of the organization's primary talking heads on climate and energy these days are institute fellow Jonah Goldberg and resident scholar Benjamin Zycher, who is also a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, another ExxonMobil grantee.
During an appearance on Fox News Channel's Your World with Neil Cavuto show last November, Goldberg denounced climate scientists as profiteers who are "financially incentivized" to advocate for government action on climate change. Cavuto did mention that Goldberg works at AEI, but left out the fact that the organization has been generously funded not only by ExxonMobil, but also by the American Petroleum Institute and Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. Zycher, meanwhile, has been caught playing fast and loose with the facts. For example, in late 2011, AEI published a book on renewable energy by Zycher that claimed the cost of solar power had jumped 63 percent since 2001. In fact, it had plummeted nearly 40 percent over that time.
Since 2007, ExxonMobil has donated $454,500 to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the secretive lobby group that drafts sample corporate-friendly legislation for state lawmakers. The company has also given campaign contributions to seven of ALEC's 21 board of directors. What does a company like ExxonMobil get for that money? At a three-day conference held in Washington, DC, last December, ALEC's corporate and legislator members collaborated on sample bills and resolutions that would, among other things, thwart implementation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) proposed standard for existing power plant carbon emissions and block the EPA's new proposed standard for ground-level ozone.
For ALEC, the role human activity plays in global warming is still up in the air. "Climate change is a historical phenomenon," its website states, "and the debate will continue on the significance of natural and anthropogenic contributions." That tortured position gives the organization the opening to invite such notorious climate science denier groups as the Heartland Institute and the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow to run workshops at its conferences. Both organizations are former ExxonMobil grantees.
The Manhattan Institute received $475,000 from ExxonMobil between 2007 and 2014. Last year the company gave the institute $100,000 for its energy policy center, the primary beneficiary being senior fellow Robert Bryce, a former reporter who previously worked for the Institute for Energy Research, another ExxonMobil grantee. Bryce has said he's "agnostic" about climate change, and over the years he has written a stream of newspaper columns that sing the praises of oil and coal and disparage the potential of wind and other renewable energy technologies. For example, his May 4, 2012, Wall Street Journal column, "Gouged by the Wind," claimed state standards requiring utilities to ramp up their use of renewables would significantly raise electricity rates, despite evidence to the contrary. His most recent column, "The Poor Need More Energy: What BP Knows and Pope Francis Doesn't," which ran on June 22 in the National Review, maintained that the best, low-cost energy source for developing countries is coal.
Finally, from 2007 through last year, the National Black Chamber of Commerce (NBCC), which boasts 151 chapters nationwide, received $800,000 from ExxonMobil, and the organization's president, Harry C. Alford, is unapologetic about taking fossil fuel industry money. "Of course we do and it is only natural," Alford states on the NBCC website. "The legacy of Blacks in this nation has been tied to the miraculous history of fossil fuel ... [F]ossil fuels have been our economic friend."
In June, the NBCC placed a column by Alford in a number of newspapers charging that the EPA's plan to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants would impose "economic hardship" on blacks and Hispanics.
In fact, unchecked climate change will likely hurt poor and minority Americans most.
How did Alford come up with his upside-down assessment? John Rogers, a senior energy analyst at UCS, took a close look the NBCC-commissioned study that Alford used as the core of his argument and found it was based on several flawed fossil fuel industry-friendly studies. Two of the bogus studies were produced by ExxonMobil grantees, demonstrating the reach of the company's disinformation campaign. One was from the Heritage Foundation, which received $340,000 from ExxonMobil between 2007 and 2013; another was from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which received $1 million from ExxonMobil last year.
ExxonMobil Curries Favor in Congress
Besides funding climate science denier groups, ExxonMobil spends a considerable amount of money on federal election campaigns. In 2014, for example, the company contributed $10,000 to reelect the most notorious denier in Congress, Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, matching what it gave him in 2008. You may remember that just last February, Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor, ostensibly to prove that the cold spell gripping the Northeast somehow proved that human activity is not causing climate change. "Climate has always changed," Inhofe declared. "... No one would debate that it has always happened. The debate is whether man is causing that to happen."
Inhofe, however, is just the tip of the proverbial melting iceberg.
More than 40 percent of the $1.6 million ExxonMobil spent last year on 283 congressional races went to 102 documented climate science deniers. It gave $544,000 to 89 deniers in the House, including Fred Upton (R-MI), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the Science, Space and Technology Committee. Thirty-four of the 54 members of the Energy and Commerce Committee got ExxonMobil money, and half of those recipients are climate science deniers. Sixteen of the 39 members of the Science Committee, meanwhile, got ExxonMobil funding, and four of the recipients are deniers.
Upton, who had called for taking action on global warming before landing the Energy and Commerce chairmanship in 2011, now maintains—despite overwhelming scientific evidence—that climate change is "not manmade." In April, his committee passed a bill sponsored by Ed Whitfield (R-KY), another ExxonMobil-funded denier, that would give states the choice to opt out of the EPA's new carbon emission rules for existing power plants and postpone implementation until all legal challenges are resolved. That likely would take years.
When it comes to climate science denial, Lamar Smith is nearly on par with Inhofe. In April, he wrote a column for the Wall Street Journal, "The Climate Change Religion," which was riddled with false claims, prompting a scathing critique by Factcheck.org. But Smith is doing a lot more than repeating the fossil fuel industry's talking points in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Since January, his committee has passed a handful of bills that, if enacted, would roll back public health and environmental protections and obstruct the EPA and other federal agencies from enacting science-based rules.
Then there's the Senate. The balance of ExxonMobil's support for deniers—$115,000—went to 13 senators, five of whom sit on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and four others on the Environment and Public Works Committee, including Chairman Inhofe. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), who received $10,000 from ExxonMobil last year and sits on both committees, has introduced a version of Whitfield's opt-out bill in an Environment and Public Works subcommittee.
ExxonMobil's 'Plan B' is Not a Viable Answer
In response to a reporter's question last week in the wake of UCS's revelation, Exxon spokesman Richard Keil maintained that ExxonMobil today "believes the risk of climate change is clear, and warrants action."
A close reading of the transcript of the company's annual shareholders meeting in May says otherwise. Over the last 25 years, ExxonMobil has repeatedly fended off shareholder resolutions to address climate change, and this year was no different. The message was loud and clear: Stay the course. Technological ingenuity will enable us to cope with the consequences.
One shareholder-sponsored resolution called on the company to set goals for curbing carbon emissions. Another would have required the company to appoint a climate change expert to its board. Still another requested a report on the company's state and federal lobbying expenditures, including lobbying through trade associations and other organizations, such as ALEC. The answer was no, no and no. None of the climate-related resolutions passed.
In his opening statement at the meeting, CEO Rex Tillerson predicted that oil and natural gas "will meet about 60 percent of global energy in the year 2040." And when asked later why he uttered nary a word about renewable energy in his remarks, Tillerson quipped, "We choose not to lose money on purpose" to loud applause.
Tillerson, who has long maintained that climate models are flawed, recommended a wait and see approach. "What if everything we do, it turns out our models were really lousy ... and it turned out the planet behaved differently because the models weren't good enough to predict?" he said. "What's Plan B?"
For Tillerson, Plan B is continuing to burn fossil fuels and adapt to whatever happens, be it sea level rise or crop failures. "Mankind has this enormous capacity to deal with adversity," he said, "and those solutions will present themselves as the realities become clear."
In lieu of ExxonMobil's dangerous, do-nothing Plan B, there are many things the company and other major carbon polluters can and must do to protect the planet. Step one for ExxonMobil: Put an end to its climate disinformation campaign. That means doing more than just talking about closing it down. ExxonMobil and other major fossil fuel companies must stop funding proxy groups and politicians to sow doubt about climate science and oppose proven ways to address the problem. After decades of deception, we need more than just talking the talk.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS intern Jayne Piepenburg contributed research for this article. Data on ExxonMobil expenditures on denier groups came from the company's publicly available financial records compiled by UCS and Greenpeace. Data on climate science deniers in Congress came from documentation provided by the Center for American Progress and journalist Bill Moyers. Data on federal campaign contributions came from the Center for Responsible Politics. Data on state campaign contributions came from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
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