Johnny Silvercloud / Flickr
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.
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.
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.
— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch) August 23, 2017
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.
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.
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.
What’s one of the most insidious myths we’ve bought into, when it comes to climate change?
It has nothing to do with the science: It’s the simple idea that we have to be a certain type of person to care about climate change.
If I’m a liberal, if I bike to work and call myself a “tree-hugger,” then of course I care about climate change. But what if I’m conservative, I drive a car or I worry about the economy—does agreeing with the science of climate change mean I have to change who I am?
When I moved to Texas 10 years ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I study climate change, one of the most politicized issues in the entire U.S. If we’re serious about it, we have to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. That’s not a popular message in a state best known for its oil and gas.
But Texas surprised me. It surprised me by how many different kinds of people, from oilfield engineers to Christian college students, want to talk about why climate change matters—to us and to everyone else on this planet. I’ve also been surprised by the questions I get—some about the science, sure; but even more about politics, faith, and other topics near and dear to our hearts.
To answer these questions, I’ve teamed up with our local West Texas PBS station to produce a new PBS Digital Studios web series, Global Weirding: Climate, Politics, and Religion. Every other Wednesday, we roll out a new video exploring climate change and what it means to all of us.
This episode tackles the identity myth, head-on. Climate change is not some distant issue that only matters to the polar bears. It’s affecting our lives right now, in the places that we live. And if we’re a human living on planet Earth, then we already have every value we need to care about a changing climate.
We all depend on this planet for the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the places we live. Unless we’ve signed up for the next trip to Mars, this planet is the only one we have. It just makes sense to take care of it: to ensure that it will continue to support us in the years to come. It’s the sensible, fiscally responsible, and most conservative thing to do, in the truest sense of the word.
There’s more to it than pure self-interest, though. When I was nine years old, my family moved to Colombia—not British Columbia, but Colombia, South America. There, I learned an even more important life lesson: that there are plenty of people on this planet far less fortunate than I am, and many of those people cannot count on having clean water to drink, or safe places to live.
This hard truth has always stuck with me and it’s one of the main reasons I’m motivated to study climate science: because it affects all of us, but most of all the poor the world over—those who already lack sufficient food, who are already at risk for diseases that no one should be dying from in the twenty first century, and who—when disaster strikes—have no choice other than to leave behind their homes and flee.
Climate change isn’t a niche issue that only matters to people who think or act or vote a certain way. Each of us, exactly who we are, with exactly the values we already have, already have every reason we need to care.
So what’s our job, as people who care about climate? Our job is this: connect the dots between what some have called the longest distance in the world, from our heads to our hearts.
The field is still in its infancy, people argue and a lot more is needed before coming to consensus. After all, aren’t scientists always changing their minds? Just a few decades ago, they were predicting an ice age, not global warming!
Even for those of us on board with the scientific consensus that climate is changing and humans are responsible, might be hard pressed to pick a year when climate science really began. Surely before 1990, when the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment was published? Maybe in 1988, when Jim Hansen testified to Congress? Or in 1981, when he published his first paper on the greenhouse effect of trace gases?
Joseph Fourier (1768- 1830).
Good guesses—but all wrong. The field of climate science stretches back almost 200 years. That’s right: Scientists have been studying our planet for that long.
For more than 150 years, we’ve known that mining coal and burning fossil fuels produces heat-trapping gases. For more than 120 years, we’ve been able to put numbers on exactly how much the Earth would warm if we artificially increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. And it’s been more than 50 years since the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology formally warned a U.S. president—Lyndon B. Johnson—that building up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would “almost certainly cause significant changes” and “could be deleterious from the point of view of human beings.”
It all started in the 1820s, when a French mathematician named Joseph Fourier realized that, for the Earth to be in equilibrium with the energy it was receiving from the sun every day, it should be a lot cooler than it actually is: around 33 degrees Celsius or nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit cooler. In fact, it should be a ball of frozen ice. But it isn’t.
than at present, an increased temperature from its own action must necessarily have resulted”—in other words, if there were more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, then it would trap more heat, and the Earth would be warmer.
All this has to do with the planet’s natural atmosphere, though. How long have we known that humans can impact climate? Over in England, a scientist and professor at the Royal Institute, John Tyndall, was asking similar questions, at around the same time.
John Tyndall (1820 – 1893).
With his rigorous scientific training and access to a state-of-the-art laboratory, John laid the foundation for our modern understanding of how molecules absorb and emit radiation. He also connected the dots between human activities and heat-trapping gases.
Svante Arrhenius (1859 – 1927).
By extracting and burning coal, oil and natural gas, we’re putting extra carbon into the atmosphere. And this thicker blanket traps more heat, making the planet warmer. How much warmer? In the 1890s, a Swedish chemist named Svante Arrhenius decided to calculate, by hand, the very first climate model. It took him two years to figure out how much the world would warm if humans doubled or tripled the amount of carbon in the atmosphere: and his numbers were amazingly close to what the most recent global climate models, run on powerful supercomputers, still find today.
But wait a minute. We know the climate has changed in the past, when there weren’t any humans around. How do we know the planet’s not just still warming after the last ice age?
During WWI, a Serbian concrete expert named Milutin Milankovic was told he could continue his studies—as long as he focused on something that had nothing at all to do with the war effort. So he thought, why don’t I figure out why we had ice ages in the past?
Milutin Milankovic (1879 – 1958).
So he did. He discovered that ice ages, and the warm interglacial periods like we’re in right now, are initiated by changes in the shape of the Earth’s orbit around the sun and the tilt of its axis of rotation. Over time, these cycles cause the great continental ice sheets to expand and retreat.
Variations in the tilt of Earth’s axis and the shape of the orbit around the sun that occur over millennia act as triggers for glacial maxima, or ice ages, and the warm periods in between.
So, does that explain what’s happening right now? No, because the warming after the last ice age peaked between four to eight thousand years ago. Today, according to natural cycles, we should be gradually and slowly cooling, in preparation for the next ice age. But, thanks to all the coal, oil and gas we’ve burned since the Industrial Revolution, that’s no longer the next event on our geological calendar. Instead, we’re heading into unknown territory—unknown, that is, since the time of the dinosaurs, when there weren’t any ice sheets, when the sea level was more than 300 feet higher than today and when the land where a third of the people on this planet currently live would’ve been under water.
Historical departure from annual global mean surface temperature average (1961-1990), showing that warming after the last glacial maximum peaked between 8,000 and 4,000 years ago.
Yes, it’s been warmer before and it’s been colder. But human civilization is not built to deal with the changes we are making to this planet, the only one we have. That’s why we care about a changing climate.