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Exxon Advertised Against Climate Change for Decades After Top Executives Knew Burning Fossil Fuels Would Warm the Planet

This week, InsideClimate News published some new revelations about one of the world’s biggest oil companies: that scientists working for Exxon knew about climate change as early as 1977.

There is now no doubt that Exxon has known about the science and the risks of global warming for decades.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Exxon’s own scientists conducted an extensive research program on climate change and "The Greenhouse Effect," running complex CO2 monitoring experiments and publishing peer-reviewed papers, because the company was deeply interested in this emerging threat to its core business, oil and ultimately the company's survival. There is now no doubt that Exxon has known about the science and the risks of global warming for decades.

The news will perhaps be of great interest to those lawyers who successfully prosecuted the tobacco industry, which hid its knowledge of the science around tobacco’s addiction, and the impact of second hand smoke.

Exxon Advertising Fully Contradicted Exxon Scientists

Because, despite having this breadth of knowledge within its walls, and for many years after these climate science programs were run at Exxon, the company has spent years and millings of dollars funding climate deniers and think tanks who attack the scientific consensus, spreading doubt and uncertainty. Greenpeace has collected data on Exxon's campaign of climate denial for decades. Our ExxonSecrets project and database now shows that has spent nearly $31 million since 1998 funding think tanks and campaigns against the climate science consensus and climate policy progress.

For decades, Mobil ran a weekly “advertorial” or "op-ad" on the opinion pages of the New York Times and other papers, ads that continued after Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999. The story of how Mobil managed to secure advertising space on the editorial page of the New York Times and why they did so is another story.

We at PolluterWatch have collected an archive of these ads from the 1970's to 2004. In light of the recent revelations about the company’s early understanding of the issue, they’re worth re-examining. The ads on global warming in particular set out the history of the companies’ campaign against both climate action and the science.

The Mobil Ads

In the lead up to the Kyoto Protocol negotiations, Mobil, a prominent member of the Global Climate Coalition, was leading the charge on the “it’s not global” message calling for developing countries to be included in emissions reduction targets.

Mobil focused on all the arguments against action on climate change that we still hear today. It claimed that developing country emissions were not addressed (the “blame China” argument). It said the climate models can’t be trusted. It called for more research. And it questioned the veracity of climate science. This argument later became the mantra of Republicans and industry opponents of international climate action, turning into a “blame China” campaign that stalled international action for years.

The ExxonMobil Ads

On December 2 1999, the first of the newly-merged ExxonMobil company ads appeared in the New York Times, announcing the merger.

And just one week later, on December 9, 1999, the merged ExxonMobil picked up the decades-long New York Times ad campaign with an ad titled: "Tomorrow’s energy needs," emphasizing of course the plentiful global supply of fossil fuels, ExxonMobil’s preferred energy source. ExxonMobil is still running this argument today, using outdated, business as usual IEA scenarios to emphasize its point, and ignoring any of the IEA's “new policy” scenarios. Interestingly, the new revelations by Inside Climate News show that in the 1970s, Exxon was thinking well beyond oil for a spell, doing advanced research in solar power for example.

The Chairman and CEO of the merged giant ExxonMobil was Lee Raymond, who had worked for Exxon since the 1960s. Raymond in fact chaired the American Petroleum Institute’s climate change committee, and twice chaired the API itself. Raymond was a hardened climate science denier, and his views were strongly reflected in a new turn in the company’s ads. Whereas Mobil had called for more research, and put the blame on developing countries, ExxonMobil embraced those arguments, but turned to outright denial.

On March 16, 2000, ExxonMobil’s ads continued the onslaught against the Kyoto Protocol and climate science with "Do no harm" that argued a similar line to the “coal will solve poverty” pitch we hear from Peabody Energy today:

 

“…for most nations the Kyoto Protocol would require extensive diversion of human and financial resources away from more immediate and pressing needs in health care, education, infrastructure, and, yes, the environment—all critical to the well-being of future generations.”

Read page 1

ExxonMobil went on to advocate a “strong focus on scientific understanding” around climate change and proposed policies “that have the potential to make significant longer-term reductions in emissions, if they are needed.” 

The ad finished with this: “Although it is hard to predict what the weather is going to be this weekend, we know with certainty that climate change policies, unless properly formulated, will restrict life itself.”

A week later, on March 23, 2000, ExxonMobil’s ad, “Unsettled science” focused on a 1996 study on temperature and climate in the Sargasso sea. At the company AGM in May that year Lee Raymond gave a presentation arguing the study showed how past temperatures appeared warmer than today, long before people began burning fossil fuels.

"So the issue isn't only: is the earth warming, but why is it warming," Raymond told the meeting.

In a letter in response to ExxonMobil’s use of his work, the author of the study, Dr Lloyd Keigwin, wrote:

"I believe ExxonMobil has been misleading in its use of the Sargasso Sea data. There's really no way these results bear on the question of human induced climate warming…I think the sad thing is the a company with the resources of ExxonMobil is exploiting the data for political purposes."

ExxonMobil then moved to a touch of greenwashing, a prominent feature of many of its Op Ads. In “The Promise of Technology”the company emphasized its push to explore new technology, especially it project on hydrogen/petroleum cars, research that kept a focus on cars at least in part powered by Exxon’s climate-changing product, which hasn’t produced any results, and which has since been surpassed by the development of electric cars. Yet it still managed to keep a question mark over the science of climate change with this line: “Climate change may pose legitimate long term risks.”

XOM 2000 Mar 30 NYT: the promise of technology (PDF)

XOM 2000 Mar 30 NYT: the promise of technology (Text)

October 28, 2000: ExxonMobil launched an attack on the precautionary principle with “Unbalanced caution”.

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In November 2000, Republican George W Bush won the US elections. Three days before his inauguration, in January 2001 Exxon's “An Energy Policy for the New Administration,” urged caution on energy issues, arguing:

Regarding climate change policy, the unrealistic and economically damaging Kyoto process needs to be rethought....Alternative energy sources such as solar or wind will not become significant until well after 2020.”

(Note: in 2014, renewable sources of energy accounted for about 10% of total U.S. energy consumption and 13% of electricity generation.1 Globally, in 2013 renewables accounted for almost 22% of global electricity generation, a 5% increase from 2012, according to the IEA).

On 28 March, 2001, EPA head Christine Tod Whitman announced the US would not implement the Kyoto Protocol. Just over a week later, on April 10, 2001 ExxonMobil’s ad lauded the decision: Moving Past Kyotoslammed the Protocol, saying it was “too much too soon,” “tried to force technological change”, “failed to include developing countries” and was “fatally politicized.”

The ad’s companion the following week “…to a sounder climate policy” called for more research on climate change, an argument became the central plank of the Bush administration’s climate change policy.

XOM 2001 April 17 NYT: ...to a sounder climate policy (PDF)

XOM 2001 April 17 NYT: ...to a sounder climate policy (Text)

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In June 2001, President Bush gave his famous Rose Garden speech on climate change, saying, in very similar words to Exxon’s, that Kyoto was “fatally flawed in fundamental ways” and then set out the same argument as Exxon – and Mobil – had been running since the mid-90’s: that big developing countries such as China and India were not part of Kyoto therefore it wouldn’t work. This remains the mantra of recalcitrant developed country nations today.

In August 2001, Exxon’s ad “Sifting and winnowing”, while not directly mentioning climate change, argued that technological advances in energy were not progressing fast, and that the government should not give subsidies to new technologies – they had to stand on their own two feet.

XOM 2001 Aug 2 NYT: Sifting and winnowing (PDF)

XOM 2001 Aug 2 NYT: Sifting and winnowing (Text)

“..it’s important that business and government leaders not pretend that we know enough to force our energy future to conform to some predetermined vision. Nor should some sources be subsidized, thereby masking their true costs and true consumer preferences.”

(Today, the fossil fuel industry receives around $37.5 billion a year in subsidies from the US Government).

In October 2002, Exxon was still questioning the science. It's op-ad “Managing Greenhouse Gas Emissions” starts with that very question:

“It is our view that better scientific understanding of climate change, human influence on it, and the associated risks and possible consequences are needed.”

While the ad went on to emphasize what the company was doing about energy efficiency, and reluctantly accepted the problems with climate change:

“Doing nothing is neither prudent nor responsible, but the same may be said of rash action.”

January 2004: “Directions for Climate Research” Here, ExxonMobil outlines areas where it deemed more research was necessary, such as “natural climate variability, ocean currents and heat transfer, the hydrological cycle, and the ability of climate models to predict changes on a regional and local scale.”

XOM 2004 Jan 21 Climate Research Directions (PDF)

XOM 2004 Jan 21 Climate Research Directions (Text)

January 2004: The “Weather and climate” ad correctly stated that weather and climate are different, but again, the ad emphasizes the range of uncertainties about climate change. The list is a litany of climate denier arguments at the time (many of which are still used today), including the influence of the sun (led by the Smithsonian Institute’s "Willie" Wei Hock Soon, whose work was being funded by ExxonMobil at the time).

XOM 2004 Jan 22 NYT: Weather and climate (PDF)

XOM 2004 Jan 22 NYT: Weather and climate (Text)

“In the face of natural variability and complexity, the consequences of change in any single factor, for example greenhouse gas emissions, cannot readily be isolated, and prediction becomes difficult... Scientific uncertainties continue to limit our ability to make objective, quantitative determinations regarding the human role in recent climate change, or the degree and consequence of future change.”

We don’t have any more of these ads after 2004. But they continue today.

In 2005, Lee Raymond retired as CEO and Chairman of ExxonMobil. During his time in this role, the company had funded climate denying think tanks to the tune of $18,593,923, with the highest year of giving that year, in 2005, at $3.47 million. Science writer Chris Mooney outlined some of that funding in Mother Jones.

The following year, with new CEO Rex Tillerson at the helm, ExxonMobil began dropping its funding of some of these groups, saying in its May 2008 annual report that it was would no longer fund groups “whose position on climate change could divert attention from the important discussion on how the world will secure the energy required for economic growth in an environmentally responsible manner."

Indeed it did drop some of that funding, and it fell back to around $800,000 in 2013, but rose again to $1.8m in 2014, after a $1m grant to the Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

ExxonMobil’s paying of climate denial campaigns may have waned since Raymond’s term, but Tillerson is still campaigning against the solutions. At the company’s AGM in May 2015, he repeated his view that renewables are not economic, saying "we choose not to lose money on purpose."

But he also repeated the same mantras seen over the decades: that the models weren’t very good, and that it would be difficult for the world to meet aggressive emission reduction targets. Technology, he said, can help deal with rising sea levels or changing weather patterns "that may or may not be induced by climate change."

Rex Tillerson

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