Quantcast
Climate
Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr

I Was an Exxon-Funded Climate Scientist

ExxonMobil's deliberate attempts to sow doubt on the reality and urgency of climate change and their donations to front groups to disseminate false information about climate change have been public knowledge for a long time, now.

Investigative reports in 2015 revealed that Exxon had its own scientists doing its own climate modeling as far back as the 1970s: science and modeling that was not only accurate, but that was being used to plan for the company's future.


Now, a peer-reviewed study published Aug. 23 has confirmed that what Exxon was saying internally about climate change was quantitatively very different from their public statements. Specifically, researchers Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes found that at least 80 percent of the internal documents and peer-reviewed publications they studied from between 1977 and 2014 were consistent with the state of the science—acknowledging that climate change is real and caused by humans, and identifying "reasonable uncertainties" that any climate scientist would agree with at the time. Yet more than 80 percent of Exxon's editorial-style paid advertisements over the same period specifically focused on uncertainty and doubt, the study found.

The stark contrast between internally discussing cutting-edge climate research while externally conducting a climate disinformation campaign is enough to blow many minds. What was going on at Exxon?

I have a unique perspective—because I was there.

From 1995 to 1997, Exxon provided partial financial support for my master's thesis, which focused on methane chemistry and emissions. I spent several weeks in 1996 as an intern at their Annandale research lab in New Jersey and years working on the collaborative research that resulted in three of the published studies referenced in Supran and Oreskes' new analysis.

Climate Research at Exxon

A scientist is a scientist no matter where we work, and my Exxon colleagues were no exception. Thoughtful, cautious and in full agreement with the scientific consensus on climate—these are characteristics any scientist would be proud to own.

Did Exxon have an agenda for our research? Of course—it's not a charity. Their research and development was targeted, and in my case, it was targeted at something that would raise no red flags in climate policy circles: quantifying the benefits of methane reduction.

Methane is a waste product released by coal mining and natural gas leaks; wastewater treatment plants; farting cows, sheep, goats and anything else that chews its cud; decaying organic trash in garbage dumps; giant termite mounds in Africa; and even, in vanishingly small amounts, our own lactose-intolerant family members.

On a molecule-by-molecule basis, methane absorbs about 35 times more of the Earth's heat than carbon dioxide. Methane has a much shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide gas, and we produce a lot less of it, so there's no escaping the fact that carbon has to go. But if our concern is how fast the Earth is warming, we can get a big bang for our buck by cutting methane emissions as soon as possible, while continuing to wean ourselves off carbon-based fuels long-term.

For the gas and oil industry, reducing methane emissions means saving energy. So it's no surprise that, during my research, I didn't experience any heavy-handed guidance or interference with my results. No one asked to review my code or suggested ways to "adjust" my findings. The only requirement was that a journal article with an Exxon co-author pass an internal review before it could be submitted for peer review, a policy similar to that of many federal agencies.

Did I know what else they were up to at the time? I couldn't even imagine it.

Fresh out of Canada, I was unaware that there were people who didn't accept climate science—so unaware, in fact, that it was nearly half a year before I realized I'd married one—let alone that Exxon was funding a disinformation campaign at the very same time it was supporting my research on the most expedient ways to reduce the impact of humans on climate.

Yet Exxon's choices have contributed directly to the situation we are in today, a situation that in many ways seems unreal: one where many elected representatives oppose climate action, while China leads the U.S. in wind energy, solar power, economic investment in clean energy and even the existence of a national cap and trade policy similar to the ill-fated Waxman-Markey bill of 2009.

Personal Decisions

This latest study underscores why many are calling on Exxon to be held responsible for knowingly misleading the public on such a critical issue. For scientists and academics, though, it may fuel another, different, yet similarly moral debate.

Are we willing to accept financial support that is offered as a sop to the public conscience?

The concept of tendering literal payment for sin is nothing new. From the indulgences of the Middle Ages to the criticisms some have leveled at carbon offsets today, we humans have always sought to stave off the consequences of our actions and ease our conscience with good deeds, particularly of the financial kind. Today, many industry groups follow this familiar path: supporting science denial with the left hand, while giving to cutting-edge research and science with the right.

As an academic, how should one consider the sources of funding? Gabe Chmielewski / Mays Communications

The Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University conducts fundamental research on efficient and clean energy technologies—with Exxon as a founding sponsor. Philanthropist and political donor David Koch gave an unprecedented US$35 million to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in 2015, after which three dozen scientists called on the museum to cut ties with him for funding lobbying groups that "misrepresent" climate science. Shell underwrote the London Science Museum's "Atmosphere" program and then used its leverage to muddy the waters on what scientists know about climate.

It may be easy to point a finger at others, but when it happens to us, the choice might not seem so clear. Which is most important—the benefit of the research and education, or the rejection of tainted funds?

The appropriate response to morally tainted offerings is an ancient question. In the book of Corinthians, the apostle Paul responds to a query on what to do with food that has been sacrificed to idols—eat or reject?

His response illustrates the complexity of this issue. Food is food, he says—and by the same token, we might say money is money today. Both food and money, though, can imply alliance or acceptance. And if it affects others, a more discerning response may be needed.

What are we as academics to do? In this open and transparent new publishing world of ours, declaration of financial supporters is both important and necessary. Some would argue that a funder, however loose and distant the ties, casts a shadow over the resulting research. Others would respond that the funds can be used for good. Which carries the greatest weight?

After two decades in the trenches of climate science, I'm no longer the ingenue I was. I'm all too aware, now, of those who dismiss climate science as a "liberal hoax." Every day, they attack me on Facebook, vilify me on Twitter and even send the occasional hand-typed letter—which begs appreciation of the artistry, if not the contents. So now, if Exxon came calling, what would I do?

There's no one right answer to this question. Speaking for myself, I might ask them to give those funds to politicians who endorse sensible climate policy—and cut their funding to those who don't. Or I admire one colleague's practical response: to use a Koch-funded honorarium to purchase a lifetime membership in the Sierra Club.

Despite the fact that there's no easy answer, it's a question that's being posed to more and more of us every day, and we cannot straddle the fence any longer. As academics and scientists, we have some tough choices to make; and only by recognizing the broader implications of these choices are we able to make these decisions with our eyes wide open, rather than half shut.

Disclosure Statement

Katharine Hayhoe's research program at Texas Tech University is supported by funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of the Interior, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and other relevant federal agencies. She is also the CEO of ATMOS Research, a consulting company that helps cities, states, provinces and regions build resilience to a changing climate.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Caribbean Flamingo. Claudio Contreras Koob

Four Vital Tips for Ethical Wildlife Photography

By Lisa Moore

Imagine yourself, camera in hand, suddenly spotting a grazing elk, a hummingbird feeding its chicks, a grizzly charging a rival or a bumble bee gathering pollen. You want the shot, but how do you get it without disturbing the natural behavior of the beautiful animal you're hoping to capture through your lens?

Keep reading... Show less
Benjamin Tupper

10 Facts About Pangolins on World Pangolin Day

By Elly Pepper

Do you know what a pangolin is? Where it lives? Why it's so endangered?

Most people don't. But World Pangolin Day, which falls on Feb. 17, is a great place to start. So here are 10 facts—some fun, some not so fun—about one of the world's most vulnerable but least-known species.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
themorningglory / Flickr

Household Products Cause as Much Air Pollution as Cars, Surprising Study Finds

Petroleum-based chemicals, such as those used in paints, cleaners and personal care products such as perfumes and deodorants, contribute as much to volatile organic air pollution in urban areas as cars and trucks, according to a new finding published in Science.

The consumer products emit synthetic "volatile organic compounds" or VOCs that contribute to ground-level ozone or small particulate pollution, causing asthma, lung disease and other serious health problems.

Keep reading... Show less
Trump Watch

Trump EPA Slammed for Ag Giant's 'Absurdly Low' Pesticide Fine

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced a settlement this week with Syngenta Seeds, LLC over violations of federal pesticide regulations at its farm in Kauai, Hawaii.

The company, a subsidiary of Swiss biotech giant Syngenta AG, agreed to pay a civil penalty of $150,000 and spend another $400,000 on worker protection training sessions.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Animals
Female Bornean orangutan with offspring. Photo courtesy of Dr. Marc Ancrenaz

Ravaged by Deforestation, Borneo Loses Nearly 150,000 Orangutans in 16 Years

By Basten Gokkon

The world lost nearly 150,000 orangutans from the island of Borneo in the past 16 years due to habitat loss and killing, and is on track to lose another 45,000 by 2050, according to a new paper in the journal Current Biology.

The study, published Feb. 15, observed 36,555 orangutan nests across Borneo, an island that is shared between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, between 1999 and 2015. During that period, the researchers reported a steep decline in the number of nests they encountered over a given distance: the encounter rate more than halved from 22.5 nests per kilometer (about 36 per mile) to 10.1 nests per kilometer. That decline, they calculate, represents an estimated loss of 148,500 individual Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus).

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Chad Nelsen, CEO of the Surfrider Foundation, presenting board to Department of Interior leadership—Todd Wynn, director (left) and Tim Williams, deputy director (right) in the Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs. Surfrider Foundation

Coastal Recreation and Tourism Businesses Fight Offshore Oil Drilling Proposal

The Surfrider Foundation and leaders of the coastal recreation and tourism industry on Thursday presented Department of Interior representatives with a surfboard and letters signed by more than 1,000 coastal businesses and elected officials in opposition to new offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters. From Florida to Maine and California to Washington State, businesses including restaurants, retailers, surf shops and hotels are expressing concerns that new offshore oil and gas development would be disastrous for coastal communities.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Renewable Energy

Renewables Now Contribute Nearly One-Fifth of U.S. Electricity Generation

Renewable energy now makes up 18 percent of total electrical generation in the U.S., roughly double the amount a decade ago, a new report shows.

According to the sixth annual Sustainable Energy in America Factbook, which outlines key U.S. energy trends, renewable energy output in the power sector soared to a record high last year and could eventually rival nuclear.

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
Snowshoe hares. L.S. Mills / Jaco and Lindsey Barnard

Animals With White Winter Camouflage Could Struggle to Adapt to Climate Change

By Daisy Dunne

Animals that turn white in the winter to hide themselves in snowy landscapes could struggle to adapt to climate change, research suggests.

A new study finds that declining winter snowfall near the Arctic could have varying effects on the survival of eight mammal species that undergo a seasonal color molt from summer brown to winter white each year.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!