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Yes, ExxonMobil and Chevron Are Still Distorting Climate Science

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Brenda Ekwurzel

By Brenda Ekwurzel

If you look at headlines from the last year, ExxonMobil, Chevron and other major fossil fuel companies have seemingly turned a new page on climate change. Recently, ExxonMobil received major kudos for giving $1 million to Americans for Carbon Dividends, a lobbying offshoot of the industry-backed Climate Leadership Council. Shortly before that, ExxonMobil, Chevron and Occidental Petroleum got good press for each pledging $100 million to the Oil and Gas Climate Initiative, which amounts to less than one percent of their capital and exploration budget for 2018 (ExxonMobil's is $28 billion while Chevron's is $15.8 billion). Companies have also touted their support for the Paris climate agreement as well as their research and investments in renewables.


But, as I and my colleagues have analyzed, this "support" is a PR distraction when these companies are keeping up business-as-usual. They intend to continue producing, marketing and selling fossil fuels at current levels for the foreseeable future, which runs counter to the steep reductions in carbon dioxide and methane emissions needed to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Tuesday the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a scorecard, which analyzed what eight major fossil fuel companies are saying they're doing about climate change, and just how much these companies are doing to drastically lower their emissions.

What did we find? Contrary to media reports and shiny company press releases, most of these major fossil fuel companies continue to mischaracterize climate science.

Why is this important? Any company that makes, markets and sells a product that is the primary cause of climate change has a responsibility to stay on top of and clearly communicate with the public scientific developments regarding their product. Misrepresenting climate science and underplaying the urgency of action allows companies to justify their business as usual practices all while climate impacts, including increasingly frequent and severe weather events such as Hurricanes Harvey and Florence, get worse and costlier. Releasing inaccurate statements allows companies to "check the box" for voicing belief in climate change, while continuing to funnel tens of tens of millions of dollars to climate-denying politicians, trade associations and other industry groups that do the dirty work of opposing climate policies.

Major Fossil Fuel Companies Fail to Accurately Represent Climate Science

We measured whether companies consistently and accurately acknowledged the scientific evidence of climate change in their public platforms. Overall, they didn't do great.

We found that five of the eight companies we studied had made public statements on climate change that underplayed the need to urgently reduce emissions, emphasized scientific uncertainty and/or were blatantly incorrect. Only BP amended its statement after UCS and Barnard College called the company out for its deceptive language.

These statements are surprising since these companies have known about climate change for at least four decades now, which would be plenty of time to figure how to make it a priority to accurately convey the latest developments in climate science. Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has issued climate assessments which companies can rely on. The IPCC's Fifth Assessment (2014) represents the latest* mainstream scientific consensus on climate change and it clearly states that "It is extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century." The primary human influence is through the burning of fossil fuels.

*(Earlier this month, this group released a special report detailing the impacts of a global average temperature increase of 1.5C relative to 2C above pre-industrial levels, and pathways to limit temperature increase to that level. See my colleagues' blog series about what the report means for us and for climate policy).

Let's see how oil and gas company statements on climate change stacked up.

ExxonMobil

ExxonMobil employs a dedicated climate change team and boasts about leading research around cutting-edge technology, such as carbon capture and storage. Yet the company's statements on climate change, including the one above, do not consistently reflect the current scientific consensus around the issue.

Contrary to ExxonMobil's claims, scientific understanding of the likelihood, magnitude and time frame of climate impacts as tied to human-caused climate change has advanced greatly. Research has over the last decade developed to the point where scientists can identify and quantify the part human-caused climate change plays in many types of extreme weather and other climate impacts. For many impacts, the likelihood is high; the magnitude is severe; and the timeframe is now. Scientists have shown, for example, that the likelihood of heat wave similar in magnitude to the one that hit Europe in 2003—during which over 30,000 people died—has doubled. Scientists have also shown that human-caused climate change made the record rainfall that hit Houston during Hurricane Harvey roughly three times more likely and 15 percent more intense.

No matter how much ExxonMobil talks about using oil to lubricate wind turbines, the company knows that most of its oil and gas are being burnt by cars, by energy generation, by human activity—which is the primary cause of climate change.

Chevron

Chevron's statement misrepresents the IPCC Fifth Assessment's conclusions, as mentioned earlier, that human activity is "extremely likely" to be the dominant driver of warming since the 1950s, not simply one possible cause of many possible causes, as is implied by Chevron's phrase "due in part." Chevron's seemingly subtle shift in wording is significant because the report shows that the overwhelming majority of the world's top researchers agree that burning fossil fuels is by far and away the largest contributor to climate change. Injecting any doubt or uncertainty into that conclusion is disingenuous at best, and outright deceiving at worst.

Above: Chevron Corporation. 2018. Climate change resilience: A framework for decision making. Online here, accessed Oct. 15.

If Chevron is going to quote the IPCC, the company should, at the very least, cut-and-paste from the panel's report.

ConocoPhillips

ConocoPhillips's statement on climate science suggests the last decade-worth of climate research, including the most recent IPCC report, simply doesn't exist.

Above: ConocoPhillips. No date. Climate change position. Online here, accessed Oct. 15.

There are three major issues with the company's statement: 1) the claim that increasing atmospheric concentrations of heat-trapping gases "can lead" rather than "are leading" to climate change, as has been established since at least the IPCC third assessment report, is followed by 2) highlighting uncertainties on the first point, when there are none and 3) proposing that it is sufficient for the company to "manage" global warming emissions rather than reducing them. Alone, each of these statements is problematic and inaccurately represents the mainstream scientific consensus. Together, they subvert the public's understanding of climate science and supply the company with an alibi for continuing to extract, sell and profit off of fossil fuels.

BP – Old and New

When we analyzed BP's statements from 2018 we found similarly misinforming language. But when we pointed the problematic language out to company representatives (as we did with all eight companies studied), BP promptly made changes that brought its statement back in line with climate science. As you can see in the first attempt, BP emphasizes scientific uncertainty by referring to atmospheric carbon's "possible" climate impact. Svante Arrhenius, more than a century ago, published the fundamental scientific principle that changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration results in changes to Earth's temperature.

Above: BP PLC. 2018a. Energy and the environment. Online here, accessed May 22.

BP's new statement, on the other hand, is an excellent example of an accurate copy-and-paste. The company's new statement mentions the IPCC 5th Assessment and, unlike Chevron, gets its facts right in stating that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is extremely likely to be the primary driver of climate change.

Above: BP PLC. No date. Energy and the environment. Online here, accessed Oct. 15.

Shell

Above: First quote: Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. No date. Climate change and energy transitions. Online here, accessed, Oct. 15. Second quote: Royal Dutch Shell Corporation. 2018c. Energy Transition. Online here, accessed July 10.

Shell's PR machine has gone into overdrive recently in an effort to paint the company as a climate leader. While Shell falls short in a number of areas, its statements on climate science and the need to reach net-zero emissions are accurate and consistent. There's no equivocating, no hedging, no backsliding, no prevaricating and no hiding inaccurate climate statements on less popular pages of its website. Climate change is real, it's caused by human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels, and we need to make changes immediately. Check, check and check.

Additional Studies on the Language of Climate Deception

Several peer-reviewed academic papers have documented how fossil fuel companies have used public communications to mislead the public about the state of climate science and its implications. A University of Reading study published this year showed that up until the mid-2000s, climate change was discussed as a problem with a solution; more recently fossil fuel company language has portrayed climate change as unpredictable and unknowable. Last year, Geoffrey Supran and Naomi Oreskes analyzed 187 climate change communications by ExxonMobil and found that while company's scientists were quietly contributing to climate science and writing reports about it to company executives, the company was paying for advertisements that told a different story.

Watchdogging Matters

Whether through outright climate denial, sowing public confusion on climate science, or funding of third-party groups that spread climate disinformation, each of these companies has tried to obscure climate science. But, as we saw with BP, the threat of public exposure and pressure apparently pushed the company to correct its website. As with most companies, major fossil fuel companies want to avoid the reputational risk of being branded climate deniers. This is why public watchdogging really matters.

Fossil fuel companies need to acknowledge scientific evidence that shows

1. The extraction and burning of their product is the main driver of climate change and,

2. avoiding the worst climate impacts requires dramatic cuts to carbon emissions immediately.

UCS and members of our science network and supporters will continue to hold these companies accountable for what they (and their trade groups) say and do on climate change.

Brenda Ekwurzel is a senior climate scientist and the director of climate science at UCS.

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Ola Elvestrun, Norway's environment minister, announced Thursday that it is freezing its contributions to the Amazon Fund, and will no longer be transferring €300 million ($33.2 million) to Brazil. In a press release, the Norwegian embassy in Brazil stated:

Given the present circumstances, Norway does not have either the legal or the technical basis for making its annual contribution to the Amazon Fund.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro reacted with sarcasm to Norway's decision, which had been widely expected. After an official event, he commented: "Isn't Norway the country that kills whales at the North Pole? Doesn't it also produce oil? It has no basis for telling us what to do. It should give the money to Angela Merkel [the German Chancellor] to reforest Germany."

According to its website, the Amazon Fund is a "REDD+ mechanism created to raise donations for non-reimbursable investments in efforts to prevent, monitor and combat deforestation, as well as to promote the preservation and sustainable use in the Brazilian Amazon." The bulk of funding comes from Norway and Germany.

The annual transfer of funds from developed world donors to the Amazon Fund depends on a report from the Fund's technical committee. This committee meets after the National Institute of Space Research, which gathers official Amazon deforestation data, publishes its annual report with the definitive figures for deforestation in the previous year.

But this year the Amazon Fund's technical committee, along with its steering committee, COFA, were abolished by the Bolsonaro government on 11 April as part of a sweeping move to dissolve some 600 bodies, most of which had NGO involvement. The Bolsonaro government views NGO work in Brazil as a conspiracy to undermine Brazil's sovereignty.

The Brazilian government then demanded far-reaching changes in the way the fund is managed, as documented in a previous article. As a result, the Amazon Fund's technical committee has been unable to meet; Norway says it therefore cannot continue making donations without a favorable report from the committee.

Archer Daniels Midland soy silos in Mato Grosso along the BR-163 highway, where Amazon rainforest has largely been replaced by soy destined for the EU, UK, China and other international markets.

Thaís Borges.

An Uncertain Future

The Amazon Fund was announced during the 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, during a period when environmentalists were alarmed at the rocketing rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It was created as a way of encouraging Brazil to continue bringing down the rate of forest conversion to pastures and croplands.

Government agencies, such as IBAMA, Brazil's environmental agency, and NGOs shared Amazon Fund donations. IBAMA used the money primarily to enforce deforestation laws, while the NGOs oversaw projects to support sustainable communities and livelihoods in the Amazon.

There has been some controversy as to whether the Fund has actually achieved its goals: in the three years before the deal, the rate of deforestation fell dramatically but, after money from the Fund started pouring into the Amazon, the rate remained fairly stationary until 2014, when it began to rise once again. But, in general, the international donors have been pleased with the Fund's performance, and until the Bolsonaro government came to office, the program was expected to continue indefinitely.

Norway has been the main donor (94 percent) to the Amazon Fund, followed by Germany (5 percent), and Brazil's state-owned oil company, Petrobrás (1 percent). Over the past 11 years, the Norwegians have made, by far, the biggest contribution: R$3.2 billion ($855 million) out of the total of R$3.4 billion ($903 million).

Up till now the Fund has approved 103 projects, with the dispersal of R$1.8 billion ($478 million). These projects will not be affected by Norway's funding freeze because the donors have already provided the funding and the Brazilian Development Bank is contractually obliged to disburse the money until the end of the projects. But there are another 54 projects, currently being analyzed, whose future is far less secure.

One of the projects left stranded by the dissolution of the Fund's committees is Projeto Frutificar, which should be a three-year project, with a budget of R$29 million ($7.3 million), for the production of açai and cacao by 1,000 small-scale farmers in the states of Amapá and Pará. The project was drawn up by the Brazilian NGO IPAM (Institute of Environmental research in Amazonia).

Paulo Moutinho, an IPAM researcher, told Globo newspaper: "Our program was ready to go when the [Brazilian] government asked for changes in the Fund. It's now stuck in the BNDES. Without funding from Norway, we don't know what will happen to it."

Norway is not the only European nation to be reconsidering the way it funds environmental projects in Brazil. Germany has many environmental projects in the Latin American country, apart from its small contribution to the Amazon Fund, and is deeply concerned about the way the rate of deforestation has been soaring this year.

The German environment ministry told Mongabay that its minister, Svenja Schulze, had decided to put financial support for forest and biodiversity projects in Brazil on hold, with €35 million ($39 million) for various projects now frozen.

The ministry explained why: "The Brazilian government's policy in the Amazon raises doubts whether a consistent reduction in deforestation rates is still being pursued. Only when clarity is restored, can project collaboration be continued."

Bauxite mines in Paragominas, Brazil. The Bolsonaro administration is urging new laws that would allow large-scale mining within Brazil's indigenous reserves.

Hydro / Halvor Molland / Flickr

Alternative Amazon Funding

Although there will certainly be disruption in the short-term as a result of the paralysis in the Amazon Fund, the governors of Brazil's Amazon states, which rely on international funding for their environmental projects, are already scrambling to create alternative channels.

In a press release issued yesterday Helder Barbalho, the governor of Pará, the state with the highest number of projects financed by the Fund, said that he will do all he can to maintain and increase his state partnership with Norway.

Barbalho had announced earlier that his state would be receiving €12.5 million ($11.1 million) to run deforestation monitoring centers in five regions of Pará. Barbalho said: "The state governments' monitoring systems are recording a high level of deforestation in Pará, as in the other Amazon states. The money will be made available to those who want to help [the Pará government reduce deforestation] without this being seen as international intervention."

Amazonas state has funding partnerships with Germany and is negotiating deals with France. "I am talking with countries, mainly European, that are interested in investing in projects in the Amazon," said Amazonas governor Wilson Miranda Lima. "It is important to look at Amazônia, not only from the point of view of conservation, but also — and this is even more important — from the point of view of its citizens. It's impossible to preserve Amazônia if its inhabitants are poor."

Signing of the EU-Mercusor Latin American trading agreement earlier this year. The pact still needs to be ratified.

Council of Hemispheric Affairs

Looming International Difficulties

The Bolsonaro government's perceived reluctance to take effective measures to curb deforestation may in the longer-term lead to a far more serious problem than the paralysis of the Amazon Fund.

In June, the European Union and Mercosur, the South American trade bloc, reached an agreement to create the largest trading bloc in the world. If all goes ahead as planned, the pact would account for a quarter of the world's economy, involving 780 million people, and remove import tariffs on 90 percent of the goods traded between the two blocs. The Brazilian government has predicted that the deal will lead to an increase of almost $100 billion in Brazilian exports, particularly agricultural products, by 2035.

But the huge surge this year in Amazon deforestation is leading some European countries to think twice about ratifying the deal. In an interview with Mongabay, the German environment ministry made it very clear that Germany is very worried about events in the Amazon: "We are deeply concerned given the pace of destruction in Brazil … The Amazon Forest is vital for the atmospheric circulation and considered as one of the tipping points of the climate system."

The ministry stated that, for the trade deal to go ahead, Brazil must carry out its commitment under the Paris Climate agreement to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below the 2005 level by 2030. The German environment ministry said: If the trade deal is to go ahead, "It is necessary that Brazil is effectively implementing its climate change objectives adopted under the [Paris] Agreement. It is precisely this commitment that is expressly confirmed in the text of the EU-Mercosur Free Trade Agreement."

Blairo Maggi, Brazil agriculture minister under the Temer administration, and a major shareholder in Amaggi, the largest Brazilian-owned commodities trading company, has said very little in public since Bolsonaro came to power; he's been "in a voluntary retreat," as he puts it. But Maggi is so concerned about the damage Bolsonaro's off the cuff remarks and policies are doing to international relationships he decided to speak out earlier this week.

Former Brazil Agriculture Minister Blairo Maggi, who has broken a self-imposed silence to criticize the Bolsonaro government, saying that its rhetoric and policies could threaten Brazil's international commodities trade.

Senado Federal / Visualhunt / CC BY

Maggi, a ruralista who strongly supports agribusiness, told the newspaper, Valor Econômico, that, even if the European Union doesn't get to the point of tearing up a deal that has taken 20 years to negotiate, there could be long delays. "These environmental confusions could create a situation in which the EU says that Brazil isn't sticking to the rules." Maggi speculated. "France doesn't want the deal and perhaps it is taking advantage of the situation to tear it up. Or the deal could take much longer to ratify — three, five years."

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