The U.S. House of Representatives’ Oversight Committee earlier this month widened its inquiry into the oil industry’s role in fostering doubt about the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change. A letter from the panel to Darren Woods, ExxonMobil chief executive, said lawmakers were “concerned that to protect … profits, the industry has reportedly led a coordinated effort to spread disinformation to mislead the public and prevent crucial action to address climate change.” The Gazette spoke with Geoffrey Supran, a research fellow in the History of Science, who, together with Naomi Oreskes, the Henry Charles Lea Professor of the History of Science, published a series of studies in recent years, the most recent one in May, on the climate communications of ExxonMobil, one of the world’s biggest oil and gas companies.
GAZETTE: Tell me about your research on the oil and gas industry’s role in spreading climate disinformation.
SUPRAN: In 2017, I and Naomi Oreskes published a series of three papers focused on what you might call traditional climate-science denial by ExxonMobil. Then, in May of this year, we shifted gears slightly, releasing a new study looking at the company’s more subtle forms of climate propaganda.
GAZETTE: What kinds of issues do you suspect the House committee will find?
SUPRAN: In 2017, our research was the first peer-reviewed analysis of ExxonMobil’s 40-year history of climate-change communications. And what we discovered was that there were systematic discrepancies between, on the one hand, what Exxon and ExxonMobil scientists said about climate-science privately and in academic circles, versus what Exxon, Mobil, and ExxonMobil said to the general public in The New York Times and elsewhere. That analysis showed that ExxonMobil misled the public about basic climate science and its implications. They did so by contributing quietly to climate science, and loudly to promoting doubt about that science.
Our work and others’ in that area provides evidence for the committee, demonstrating ExxonMobil’s long history of attacking science and scientists in order to undermine and delay climate action. Our more recent work, this May, is an evolution of that study in that it focuses on how, beyond outright disinformation, ExxonMobil has used language to subtly but systematically shape the way the public thinks about climate change, often in misleading ways. That study demonstrates how the company has selectively emphasized some terms and topics in public while consistently avoiding others.
The takeaway message across all of our work is that over and over, ExxonMobil has misled the public about climate change by telling the public one thing and then saying and doing the opposite behind closed doors. Our latest work shows that while their tactics have evolved from outright, blatant climate denial to more subtle forms of lobbying and propaganda, their end goal remains the same. And that’s to stop action on climate change.
GAZETTE: So according to your findings, within the walls of ExxonMobil there was never any doubt about climate science. Is that right?
SUPRAN: Right, there was never the undue doubt that they promoted in public. In fact, behind closed doors and in academic circles, Exxon has known that its products would likely cause dangerous global warming since at least the 1970s. By way of its trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry as a whole has been on notice even longer — since the 1950s.