Did Exxon Just Admit It's Still Funding Climate Deniers?
NewsHour host Judy Woodruff pressed Cohen about an accusation New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman made during a taped interview that aired just before Cohen's segment. Schneiderman—who had announced the week before that he was investigating ExxonMobil over whether it had misled the public and shareholders about climate change risks—had charged that ExxonMobil funds climate change denier organizations to malign mainstream climate science.
Hey @RDKeil1, your exiting exec @KenPCohen was more direct @NewsHour: https://t.co/WgVYktDe6h @PRI @KeithOlbermann https://t.co/HUAg5a0hvm— CitizensForWater (@CitizensForWater)1447942482.0
"Has Exxon been funding these organizations?" she asked.
"Well, the answer is yes," Cohen replied. "And I will let those organizations respond for themselves."
Putting aside the fact that no one from any of the denier groups was on the program, Cohen's admission is noteworthy because technically "has been funding"—which, grammatically speaking, is in the present perfect progressive tense—describes an action that began in the past and continues in the present.
To avoid any doubt, it would have been helpful if Woodruff had used the present tense—as Schneiderman did—and had asked if ExxonMobil is funding these groups. Ambiguous or not, Cohen's statement still calls into question recent assertions by Richard Keil, ExxonMobil's senior public affairs adviser, that the company is no longer funding them. And second, it would appear to contradict a claim the company had stopped funding denier groups that Cohen himself made eight years ago.
In any case, as I spelled out in a July blog post, no matter how Cohen or Keil answer the funding question, it's an indisputable fact that ExxonMobil has been—and still is—a leading sponsor of think tanks, advocacy groups, trade associations and contrarian scientists that peddle lies about climate science and the viability of renewable energy. Only the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries, have spent more on the climate disinformation network.
Equally interesting was Cohen's attempt to dismiss the funding question. In so many words, he told Woodruff that although ExxonMobil may have financed climate science denier groups, the groups are ultimately responsible for their anti-science message, not ExxonMobil.
That response may well signal that ExxonMobil plans to use this legal tactic to counter the charge that it financed a massive climate change disinformation campaign. It would certainly make sense for the company to plant seeds of doubt about its responsibility. After all, hasn't its modus operandi all along been to emphasize uncertainty?
The NewsHour interview with Cohen came on the heels of a string of public relations disasters for ExxonMobil. The first came in July, when the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a report documenting that ExxonMobil and five other top carbon polluters—BP, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, coal giant Peabody Energy and Royal Dutch Shell—were fully aware of the reality of climate change for decades but spent tens of millions of dollars to promote contrarian arguments they knew to be false. UCS also uncovered evidence that Exxon had been factoring climate change into its oil and gas extraction plans as early as 1981—much earlier than anyone had realized and years before there was much public awareness of the problem.
Since then, two news organizations have published a series of articles that fill out the details of what Exxon scientists knew and when they knew it. Both InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times dug up evidence from company archives and interviews with former employees showing that Exxon, a leader in climate research in the 1970s and 1980s, became one of the most ardent climate science deniers, rejecting the warnings of its own scientists that the consequences of global warming could be catastrophic.
Partly due to these revelations, several members of Congress, Democratic presidential candidates, and more than 60 leading environmental, science and social justice groups (including UCS) have called for the Justice Department to investigate ExxonMobil for deliberately deceiving the public, much in the same way the tobacco industry lied about the link between smoking and disease. And then, on November 4, Schneiderman launched his criminal investigation to determine, as he told PBS NewsHour, whether Exxon was "using the best science and the most competent [climate] models for their own purposes, but then telling the public, the regulators and shareholders that no competent models existed." If that's the case, he said, the company could be guilty of fraud.
Cohen and other ExxonMobil officials, including CEO Rex Tillerson and the aforementioned Richard Keil, hit back with a flurry of press releases, newspaper columns, TV and radio interviews, and tweets. Right out of the box, they attacked the credibility of InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times, calling them "activists" and mischaracterizing their reporting.
Today, we delivered 350,000 petitions along with 14 other organizations to the DOJ to investigate #Exxon #ExxonKnew https://t.co/cqeCHuC0M1— ClimateTruth (@ClimateTruth)1447973592.0
"Activists deliberately cherry-picked statements attributed to various company employees to wrongly suggest definitive conclusions were reached decades ago by company researchers," Cohen said in an October 21 press release, for example. "These activists took those statements out of context and ignored other readily available statements demonstrating that our researchers recognized the developing nature of climate science at the time, which, in fact, mirrored global understanding."
In fact, both news organizations did report there were differences of opinion among Exxon scientists early on. As InsideClimate News put it, company researchers "acknowledged the uncertainties surrounding many aspects of climate science." By the early 1980s, however, internal documents show that company scientists had concluded that rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could have catastrophic consequences within the first half of the 21st century if fossil fuel emissions weren't significantly reduced. It was later in that decade when the company turned a deaf ear to what its scientists were saying, presumably because it feared heightened awareness about climate change could lead to government controls on carbon emissions.
The turning point came in 1988. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the same year the United Nations established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and NASA scientist James Hansen famously warned Congress that global warming had already begun, Exxon's public affairs director defined the "Exxon Position" in a draft memo titled "The Greenhouse Effect." Acknowledging the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuels is driving global warming, the memo recommended that the company "emphasize the uncertainty."
That's just what a number of key Exxon researchers did from then on, turning their backs on their previous work. As InsideClimate News characterized it, they "became vocal climate contrarians" and ridiculed IPCC findings.
ExxonMobil's Disinformation Network
In the 1990s, Exxon participated in the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), an alliance of more than 60 U.S. and British corporations and trade groups formed in 1989 to thwart international and domestic efforts to address global warming by, you guessed it, emphasizing scientific uncertainty.
By end of the decade, however, Exxon and other key GCC members began enlisting the help of a number of think tanks that had been surreptitiously assisting the tobacco industry in its fight against tighter controls on smoking. Why? To hide their fingerprints. Exxon, which quickly proved to have the deepest pockets—at least until the Koch brothers surpassed it in 2005—kicked off its spending spree on these think tanks and other nonprofit advocacy groups in 1998, a year before it merged with Mobil and Kenneth Cohen became the company's VP for public and government affairs.
In January 2007, UCS issued a report that revealed that between 1998 and 2005, ExxonMobil had spent at least $16 million on a network of more than 40 anti-regulation think tanks and advocacy groups to launder its message. A few weeks later, when asked about the report by a Greenwire reporter, Cohen said ExxonMobil had stopped funding them.
That claim is as preposterous today as it was eight years ago. Just last year the company spent $1.9 million on 15 climate science denier groups, including the American Enterprise Institute, American Legislative Exchange Council, Manhattan Institute and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and 10 of last year's grantees were among those cited in UCS's 2007 report. All told, Greenpeace has documented that ExxonMobil has spent $31 million since 1998 on denier groups, but there is good reason to suspect that's not even the half of it. A former highly placed ExxonMobil executive who requested anonymity told UCS that the company paid out as much as $10 million annually on what insiders called "black ops" from 1998 through 2005, significantly more than what UCS was able to pin down in its 2007 report from company tax records.
So what should we make of Cohen's apparent admission on PBS NewsHour about ExxonMobil's role in the climate-denial funding game? Well, Cohen may not be much of a grammarian, but he is top-notch lawyer who worked for 22 years in Exxon's legal department before becoming VP for public affairs. As noted above, Cohen was likely taking a new tack designed to shield ExxonMobil from blame for the climate disinformation campaign. Lawyers call it "plausible deniability." ExxonMobil may have paid denier groups for their services, the argument goes, but those groups are solely responsible for their actions.
Legally proving a quid pro quo may be difficult, but at least one prominent denier-group funder has spoken candidly about the power such funding entails. In Brian Doherty's 2007 book, Radicals for Capitalism: The Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement, David Koch put it plainly. "If we're going to give a lot of money, we'll make darn sure they spend it in a way that goes along with our interest," Koch said. "And if they make a wrong turn and start doing things we don't agree with, we withdraw funding. We do exert that kind of control."
Cohen can trot out the "plausible deniability" line all he likes, but there is little doubt that ExxonMobil has exerted that kind of control, too.
The big question is, are ExxonMobil's actions illegal?
The Washington Post doesn't think so. It ran an editorial on Nov. 14, Exxon deserves criticism, but it didn't commit a crime. Syndicated columnist Robert J. Samuelson doesn't think so, either. A week before the Post editorial, he wrote a column maintaining that ExxonMobil is being vilified for "expressing its opinions," which deserve protection. For Samuelson, the company is exercising its constitutional right of free speech.
Attorney General Schneiderman obviously thinks they might be, hence his investigation. "In New York," he told PBS NewsHour, "we have laws against defrauding the public, defrauding consumers, defrauding shareholders." And, it goes without saying, there is no legal protection for fraud.
Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a former prosecutor, thinks they might be, too. "The revelation that Exxon knew about the link between climate change and carbon pollution as early as 1981 and yet continued to support decades-long campaign of denial described in the [July] UCS report, strengthens the parallel with the tobacco-industry conduct that led to a civil [Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act] verdict against tobacco," Whitehouse told The Nation in July. "Whether [the Justice Department] pursues this or not is their call, but if nothing else, the UCS report shows these are legitimate questions to ask."
Sharon Eubanks, a former Justice Department lawyer who prosecuted the racketeering case against the tobacco industry, also has called for a federal investigation. "It appears to me, based on what we know so far, that there was a concerted effort by Exxon and others to confuse the public on climate change," she said in an October 20 interview with Climate Progress. "They were actively denying the impact of human-caused carbon emissions, even when their own research showed otherwise."
In any case, absent a full investigation, it would be premature draw to any conclusions about the legality of ExxonMobil's conduct. At this point, we don't know. What we do know is, in light of the evidence uncovered by UCS, InsideClimate News, the Los Angeles Times and others, investigations of whether ExxonMobil violated any state or federal laws are undoubtedly warranted.
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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